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Party of One: The Loner’s Manifesto by Anneli Rufus

February 11, 2021

This book is a mix of trivia, history, psychology and, unfortunately, a “manifesto” about what it means to be a loner. I say unfortunately, because maybe 30% of this book is really interesting. The rest consists of random personal anecdotes, tenuous assertions, and woe-is-us diatribes about how much loners are persecuted in modern society.

Rufus defines a loner as someone who wants to be alone, different from outcasts. It’s possible for someone to be “lonely, not a loner.” This distinction is important because it disqualifies the Ted Kaczynskis and other psychopaths who have given loners a bad rap.

The modern world is stacked against people who just prefer to be by themselves. As Susan Cain details in her excellent book, Quiet, most workplaces reward extroverts.  And oftentimes loners are seen as weirdos or as dangerous. The “violent loner” is a favorite profile of criminal investigators, though it turns out to be more of a stereotype.

Rufus hopes to help de-stigmatize loners, maybe the most important point of the book.  It’s important we develop systems that allow loners to exist and thrive in society, and that parents and schools and everyone else recognize there’s nothing inherently wrong with people who prefers to be by themselves.

Unfortunately, Rufus’s approach to making this case is more by assertion and anecdote than grounded in a scientific or statistical research. And she really goes overboard with her portrayal of loners as a persecuted group. Sure, extroverts have a natural advantage in the modern world, but is it really true that “the idea of dressing is self-betrayal” for loners? She claims that loners could be driven crazy if forced to live in the “nonloner” world and compares them to deep sea fish forced to live in a shallow tank. “Their shallow tank. Made just for them.” It’s all a bit dramatic.

These forced analogies are where this book really oversteps. Citing psychologist Steven Pinker, she says that being a loner is likely a matter of nature, not nurture, and thus compares to being gay. In her most objectionable analogy, she claims, “If ‘driving while black’ is cause for suspicion, then driving while a loner is none too safe either.” A false and completely unnecessary comparison.   

“You could write a whole book about writers who were and are loners,” she writes. “I wish you would!” I scribbled in the margin. She teases these stories with a few paragraphs here or there, scattered throughout, about some of the habits of famous loner artists, but there’s not enough connective tissue between these anecdotes. I don’t like to judge a book based on what I wanted it to be about, but it would have been interesting.

As would an elaboration on the hermitical religious traditions throughout history. Here she dives in more deeply, with a full section on anchorites—religious ascetics who withdrew from society, often into cells attached to churches. She tells of the monks on Mount Athos in Greece, speckled with as many as 180 separate, solitary, single-monk dwellings in the eleventh century. The desert hermits. Fuga mundi. It could be a fascinating book in itself.

Or an examination of how the internet has transformed the lives of loners, giving them the ability to be a part of a community of shared interests while often maintaining their anonymity. Also an interesting topic for an in-depth examination. Instead, we get a couple pages about the internet as an “absolute and total miracle” for loners, and a finger-wagging bit about the ill-effects of video games, in which she ignores the last decade-plus of linked, social gaming.

There is a section on how the rugged individualist was once a celebrated American archetype, embodied in frontiersmen and cowboys. The loner was seen as a hero, not a villain. “Loner values once played a much larger role in American culture than they do now.” Arguable, but interesting.

All of these things would have made for a fascinating book, if expanded, linked, grounded more rigorously. Instead, Rufus scratches surfaces, bounces between history and personal anecdote, and makes unsupported assertions as if she is preaching to the choir. And that is the part that is most unfortunate—it’s delivered in part as a manifesto, a “this is what we stand for” rallying cry, for all the aggrieved loners out there. There is no sense of an obligation to actually make a case. Which is unfortunate. It would have been a better book.

The Shining by Stephen King

February 1, 2021

Lists of the top 60-some-odd Stephen King books (though by the time I finish writing this review, he may be up over 70) invariably put his 1977 classic, The Shining, in one of the top spots. NPR included it in their 2018 list of favorite horror books of all time. It was the book that set King on his way to being the king of the genre. It was also the source material for Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1980 adaptation. 

I haven’t seen Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining since high school, but the images from the film are so indelible that you can’t read the book without seeing Jack Nicholson’s maniacal grin or the creepy tracking shots down those long hotel hallways. Stephen King hated Kubrick’s adaptation. He thought Kubrick changed too many fundamental character and plot points. Which is fine—King is right that the changes are significant, kind of. But the movie is better. 

The basic storyline of both is the same, a classic setup for horror. A family of three move into The Overlook Hotel, a magnificent old behemoth in the remote mountains of Colorado, when Jack, the husband takes a job as the winter caretaker. He’s a struggling writer and recovering alcoholic. His marriage with his wife, Wendy, is on the fritz—mostly because of his booze. And he hasn’t been the best dad of late. A quiet winter in a grand hotel will give Jack time to focus on his writing, and the family some quality time together to allow the bruises to heal. 

It’s probably not giving anything away to say that things don’t go exactly as planned. 

The Shining is part haunted mansion, part possession story. It has the classic horror stuff. It’s full of tense moments and the macabre, hallucinatory imagery King is famous for. But it succeeds mostly as an extended metaphor for addiction (King drew inspiration from his own experience with alcoholism).

Beyond that, I had a tough time with the heavy-handedness of the writing. Maybe his touch got lighter over the years, or maybe I just didn’t notice because I was a teenager when I went through my prime “Stephen King phase.” But here he lays it on as thick as the drifts of snow that covered The Overlook (and then Mr. King over-uses parentheticals, for all the creepy little voices in all the little heads, doesn’t he?). I just found it annoying after awhile. 

Anyway, I don’t think I’d put this as #1 on my Stephen King list. But I’m still looking forward to reading his sequel, Dr. Sleep, which was published 36 years after The Shining. And I’ll be making Kubrick’s The Shining a movie-night feature soon (the second part of the double-feature, after everyone else has gone to bed). 

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

January 30, 2021

I found Robert Macfarlane’s Underland so comforting in 2020 at the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s examination of “geologic time” helped give broad perspective to the moment. So as 2021 started off in its own kind of whirlwind, I went back to MacFarlane.

The Old Ways is a meditation on the paths—the ways—that humans take to get from one place to another. It’s about how some of those ways came to be, how they connect and define us, and how the simple act of walking has served a purpose beyond transportation—of rumination, of spiritual pilgrimage, of healing—throughout human history.

MacFarlane notes that a drop of rain onto a cliffside of limestone might strike a course down the rock face, washing away a bit of dirt. This makes it easier for the next drop. Eventually, there is a path. When dry, that path might be easier for animals to scurry up and down the hill, then people might widen the path, possibly pave it. In the same way, our modern ways, be they highways or simply hiking paths, often have a history of happenstance. Someone, perhaps an animal or raindrop, first cut this path sometimes thousands of years ago. (It reminds me of the fun—but apparently untrue—story about how the width of NASA’s rocket boosters was descended from the width of Roman chariots).  

Macfarlane describes The Old Ways as the third book in a trilogy about “landscape and the human heart.” I have not read the previous two, and it doesn’t really matter. His books, at least from the two I’ve read, can be picked up and read at any chapter. They are loose, meandering, thoughtful, peaceful, spiritual, surprising, random. His style of travel writing most resembles a stroll. It is sometimes adventurous, but the mind never stops.  

Macfarlane isn’t the first to connect walking with spirituality or creativity or any of the other connections he makes here. But it’s an enlightening and enjoyable read nonetheless, full of history and trivia and astute observations. He spends a fair amount of time on seafaring, and makes the point that for much of human history, the relationship between land and sea was actually inverse of the way we tend to think of it. Our mental models of the world are usually based on maps, where the land is the thing and the sea is the empty space where there is no land. But in actuality, Macfarlane points out, the sea—not land roads—is what has connected much of the world throughout history. Places along coastlines, linked by water trade routes, often shared commerce and culture, and it was actually the inland area that was the blank space. The network of “ways” was not physical—there are obviously no constant physical roads on the oceans—but the invisible network of over-water routes united the world long before roads did.

Another inversion—the idea that mountains are not peaks and the sky is a void, but that the void is part of the mountain itself. We do not climb onto a mountain; we enter into a mountain landscape. It’s a fun reorientation.  

In his examination, he tells the stories of artists, explorers, other travelers and writers. Rather than any sense of confinement because these topics have been well explored before, Macfarlane’s writing exemplifies a concept he writes about with the land: There have been many explorers and writers on islands, in gardens, in other bounded spaces, who “have been animated at first by the delusion of a comprehensive totality, a belief that they might come to know their chosen place utterly because of its boundedness. And all had, after long acquaintance, at last understood that familiarity with a place will lead not to absolute knowledge but only ever to further inquiry.” In other words, you can’t fully know a place. The more you look, the more there is to see. Likewise, the more Macfarlane dives into these places and well-trodden topics, the more it becomes clear that they are limitless in material, limitless in story, limitless in wonder.

The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata

January 27, 2021

In 1929, Adana Moreau, a Dominican immigrant, wrote Lost City, a sci-fi novel. Eighty years later, an Israeli-American living in Chicago receives a package from his recently-deceased grandfather, with the instructions to try to return it to a man named Maxwell Moreau, a physicist living in Chile. Maxwell is Adana’s son. The package is a manuscript for a novel called A Model Earth, the sequel to Lost World

The names of these two fictitious novels—fictions within a fiction—speak to the ephemeral and malleable nature of story, of story as a simulacrum for reality, and of displacement. This is a book of lost people, of lost cities, of lost histories. It jumps around in time, often making leaps across decades, filling in gaps in the backstories of a constellation of characters, but with each there are holes left. By the end, the cover image makes perfect sense. 

I think of the ghostly paintings of Jake Wood-Evans, images that are more empty containers. The Lost Book of Adana Moreau is a mystery, sort of, but it also feels like a ghost story. If the protagonists are out to metaphorically solve the question of what’s in the box, they often only find what was in the box. The book is littered with these ghost boxes.  

“Napoleon Crossing the Alps” by Jake Wood-Evans

The most striking passage, to me, is an actual quote from the actual historian Milan Hübl: “The first step in liquidating a people is to ease its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.” 

This quote is ominous, and takes on new meaning as we get the histories of the various characters, many of them exiles and refugees. The world is ever-changing, full of many wandering, homeless souls. I think also of the scene in Blood Meridian when the Judge sketches some ancient cliff drawings into his journal, then wipes the actual drawings off the face of the cliff. He who owns the story owns history. “Nationalism always works overtime to create its own reality,” Zapata writes

If this seems bleak, it’s counterbalanced by a kind of suspended feel to the narrative, a slow-moving meander. The violence is past violence. There is little immediate urgency, other than to satisfy our own curiosity. And there is an enchanting quality to the language throughout, which is delightful. 

Even toward the end of the novel, which takes place during and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with the devastation of one of the most culturally rich cities in the U.S., a character who has just lost everything in the flood looks up and marvels at the night sky over the lightless town. “I’ve never seen so many stars in my life,” he says with a sigh, before he leaves his city. 

The Dog of the South by Charles Portis

January 10, 2021

“My wife Norma had run off with Guy Dupree, and I was waiting around for the credit card billings to come in so I could see where they’d gone.” This is the first line of The Dog of the South, from narrator Ray Midge, of Little Rock, Arkansas. Dupree is a friend of Ray’s. He’s also Norma’s ex-husband. He is also out on a bail bond that Ray helped arrange. They took Ray’s car, stole his credit cards, and headed south into Mexico. Ray semi-reluctantly sets off after them.

So goes the main plotline in this hilarious road novel that, I was surprised to see, was published in 1979. It feels more modern.

Portis has been compared to Tom Wolfe, but felt to me that he owed more to the beats. The velocity, the quirkiness. Not as surreal as Richard Brautigan, but with that playfulness.

It’s easy to see why the Coen Brothers, who adapted the Portis’s True Grit, would be a fan of the author. The plot—Ray’s seemingly straight shot that gets bent off course and hijacked by increasingly bizarre interlopers until it’s completely bananas—is reminiscent of their The Big Lebowski or Burn After Reading.  

And The Dog of the South’s characters are a like a bag of wild bird seed. Sometimes intelligent, often misinformed, almost always opinionated, usually ready to just go full in over their heads. They carry with them strange worldviews and beliefs about the way things work. Bill Hader (formerly of SNL; owns the film rights for Dog of the South) described them as “funny in the way the people I grew up around in Oklahoma were funny.”

The descriptions of the people and their quirks are amazing, with many snort-inducing turns of phrase. But the dialogue is even better. The dialogue is so darn good.

I’ll be digging into more Portis this year.

My 2020 Book List

January 1, 2021

2020 deserves much of the flogging it has received, but it’s been good for a few things. First, I’ve done no work travel since early March, and spending all that extra time with the family has been a blessing. Secondly, it’s been a great year for reading and watching movies.

Here’s my movie list (no commentary, just ordered).

Attached below is my book list.

Most of my 2020 reading was either trying to go deeper into what was happening in the world or escaping it.

Going deeper sometimes meant reading about pandemics and viruses and how people cope with mass disasters. Lawrence Wright’s The End of October is a chillingly on-point novel about a pandemic. Richard Preston’s Panic in Level Four made me think, “At least this isn’t Ebola.” This is Chance! is about the aftermath of the huge 1964 Alaska earthquake. It gave me some faith in our ability to deal with crises. The Ends of the World is, well, not a good book if you seek comfort. And then there were two books of essays—Zadie Smith’s Intimations, written during the early days of the pandemic; and Elisa Gabberts The Unreality of Memory, not about the pandemic but with many overlapping themes—that were both packed with insight and interesting observations.

Going deeper also meant continuing to build an understanding of how we got to our present moment in terms of social justice and justice toward oppressed groups. I started a number of books on antiracism which I’ll finish in 2021, but the book that really grabbed me as foundational was David Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass. I highly recommend that. It is history, but it’s also about history. We do a really terrible job of drawing continuous lines in our history, and we end up asking questions like, “How did this happen?” or “How did we get here?” as if here just happened out of nowhere or this hasn’t been happening forever.

Along those lines, I read a few short books about trying to stay open-minded and non-judgmental, a real challenge for me this year. Alan Jacobs’s How to Think was a great (and surprising) pair with David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water. I recommend both.

Escape came in different forms. I have been reading and watching a lot of Westerns, so you’ll see that represented. I got interested in songwriting as an artform, though don’t ask me to sing anytime soon. But the one book that really felt transportive and calming was Robert MacFarlane’s Underland, which deals with underground worlds and the concept of deep, or geologic time. It helped put things in perspective, was very calming and I often found myself re-listening to it when I was trying to go to sleep. I’m currently listening to the audiobook of his The Old Ways for the same reason.

As for fiction, East of Eden took the prize as my favorite of this year, as I suspected it might. Thanks to my friend Greg for suggesting we do it as a mini book group. The Goldfinch is good. And I really loved Deliverance. The other novel that stayed with me is Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, though I implore you to check out the warning in my review before you read the book and come back blaming me for it.

As always, thanks to my good friends who share their lists every year. In a year of isolation and contemplation, your lists and texts and emails with book recommendations have brought an outsized amount of joy.  

Thanks to my friend Greg for getting me on board with this tradition 20+ years ago.

And thanks to my mom, who still reads all of my reviews and points out my many errors, particularly my inconsistent use of commas. As I was frantically writing and posting through my end-of-year backlog (something I promise I won’t do every year, and which I still do every year), she texted me saying, “I’m keeping up with the reviews! No errors in the last post.” Best mom in the world.

Post your comments, recommendations, lists, etc.

Cheers to 2021!

The Short List


East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Deliverance by James Dickey

The Goldfinch by Donna Tart

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor*
*see above note, read review first


Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight

The Unreality of Memory by Elisa Gabbert

Pacific by Simon Winchester

How to Think by Alan Jacobs

The Full List

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

January 1, 2021

For years, people have been telling me that I would love East of Eden. I’m a huge Steinbeck fan. I want to inhabit the worlds he creates—which I suppose mostly means living in early 20th Century, mid-coast California. He has such a talent for enchantment, a knack for creating atmosphere with deceptively simple prose. I constantly read back over paragraphs and sentences and wonder, “How did he do that?”

Such was my experience with East of Eden. From the opening paragraph, I was enchanted.

The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.  

I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer—and what trees and seasons smelled like—how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich.

There is nothing complicated going on here. He tells us about the land, locates us in its grand geology, then craftily pulls us into a mood of nostalgia with those two magical words, “I remember…” We don’t know who this narrator is—won’t find out until 149 pages later—but we are already connected to him.

He does this time and again throughout the novel. It is one of my favorite things to see, how he introduces us to characters in a paragraph or two, and by the third we feel we know this person, maybe are old friends even.

Steinbeck wrote East of Eden in eleven months in 1951. He claimed that he put everything he had ever learned into it. “It must contain all in the world I know and it must have everything in it which I am capable,” he wrote to his publisher in his letters that accompanied every day of his writing (Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, review to come). He also said that it was his most personal novel, written specifically with his two sons in mind, for them, “and perhaps by speaking directly to them I shall speak directly to other people.”

How much of this direct message for his sons survived the editing process is hard to say, but this does feel like a personal novel, beyond some of the biographical details. It contains the intertwined stories of two families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks, neighbors near Salinas, California, in the years following the turn of the century. It is about these two families, but it is also about the changing nation.

The Hamilton story revolves around the patriarch, Samuel Hamilton, a determined optimist, an inventor, a tinkerer, a dispenser of wisdom. A virtuous, good-hearted man who may be one of my favorite literary characters.

The Trasks hail from the east coast. Central to their story is the dichotomy of two sets of brothers—first Adam and Charles; then Adam’s boys, Aron and Cal. Their story is messy, full of Shakespearean drama, and overlaid with heavy Biblical symbolism.

It’s helpful, as one might guess from the title, to have a decent working knowledge of the Bible, specifically Genesis. The story of Cain and Abel run through and are remixed with the Trasks.

Steinbeck also hoped to achieve a loose, relaxed feel with the novel. Something “at ease and comfortable.” He knew it must sound simple, and yet it was his most complicated book. He fretted about how many balls he put into the air: “Lord this is a complicated book. I hope I can keep all the reins in my hands and at the same time make it sound as though the book were almost accidental.”

This is where the plotting is at its best in East of Eden. Moments of languid tranquility, of life passing by, punctuated by hits where that life is interrupted, thrown off course. It happens time and again, over generations, and yet each time it is a jolt. The kind of jolt and dislocation you feel when it happens in real life. Accidental, as he says.

Steinbeck achieves this wonderfully in the first two acts of the book. In the third, it becomes, in my opinion, overly plotted. It begins to feel as if the lushness that covers the landscape runs thin and we can see the scaffolding, the willful hand of the author moving set pieces and pushing buttons. At a couple points, it verges on the melodrama of a soap opera.

Unfortunately, the 1955 film version of East of Eden starring James Dean and Julie Andrews focuses solely on this third act, with Cal Trask (Dean) at the center. It’s hard to express how much I hated this movie. I had to work hard to scrub off the mud it flung back onto the novel. With enough time, I think I can mostly forget the movie.

Yet, still this is a wonderful book. My edition is 600 pages, and I wish it was 900. Not just because I wanted to spend more time with these characters (especially Samuel Hamilton), but because I wish Steinbeck had maintained the languid pace he established early on. So many characters are introduced and then head off in different directions, and I would have been happy to go with them. But who am I to say what one of America’s greatest novelists should have done with his magnum opus? I’m just glad I finally got around to reading it.

Reviews of other Steinbeck works:

The Pearl

The Winter of Our Discontent

Travels With Charley

Cannery Row

The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom by H.W. Brands

January 1, 2021

This book was recommended to me—by algorithm, no less!—after I finished David Blight’s excellent biography of Frederick Douglass. H.W. Brands is a professor of history at UT Austin. I read his Dreams of El Dorado in 2019.

The eponymous zealot and emancipator refer to John Brown and Abraham Lincoln, two significant figures in the abolitionist movement, who might be said to be on opposite ends of a spectrum of radical behavior. Lincoln, as everyone knows, after winning the election of 1860, took the North to war to preserve the Union and end slavery. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, declaring the freedom of all slaves. And he ultimately led the North to victory in the war.

What’s less known about Lincoln is the degree to which he worked, morally struggled, and suffered under the weight of his decisions, exhausting every avenue to avoid war. He made many compromises and often tempered his long-term vision for near-term, practical solutions (something Frederick Douglass and many other abolitionists criticized him for).

He and Mary Todd Lincoln also suffered greatly after the loss of their 12-year-old son, Willie, in 1862, a biographical fact that sometimes is overlooked in profiles of Lincoln at war.

At the other end of this biography is John Brown. His is a complicated legacy that I might sum up: “Heart in the right place; got everything else wrong.” Famous for his ill-begotten raid on the armory at Harper’s Ferry, John Brown’s actions before that were even more disturbing. In the skirmishes that came to be known as the Border War or “Bleeding Kansas,” Brown led a group of men in a series of raids in Kansas where they pulled southern sympathizers from their beds and killed them in the night, sometimes hacking them with broad swords.

Brown’s actions were single-mindedly focused on ending slavery (though Douglass would quibble with that portrayal—he believed Brown was, intentionally or not, in it more for personal glory). His was an abolitionism driven by religious zeal, and hence legality in the eyes of the nation and/or practicality in the eyes of the abolitionist movement were of little significance. God wanted slavery ended, and Brown was determined to carry out that mission, regardless of the consequences.

Lincoln and Brown

Brown was, by any honest assessment, what we’d today call a domestic terrorist. His deeply held beliefs and wild looks gave him the appearance of being deranged, though those who spoke with him realized he was more of an unwavering zealot. Which is perhaps a fine line. Still, even at the time, he and other abolitionists realized that his main value was as a martyr. He symbolized the lengths to which northerners, if only a small number, would go to end slavery. Before his death in 1859, Brown wrote, “The crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” He meant it with all his soul.

It is interesting to consider Brown in context with Lincoln, as Brands does here. I would throw Douglass into that mix, as representative of three different approaches to abolition. Lincoln, the pragmatist; Douglass, the firebrand orator, willing to speak uncomfortable truths; Brown, the zealot, ready to sacrifice pragmatism for action.

One might debate these three modes of influence for any progressive social movement—a similar debate was had between the approaches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. A similar debate might be had today around any issue. What is the best path to progress? Is there a more effective way, or does a movement require a full-spectrum assault?

A fascinating, harrowing, yet also instructive footnote to this story: Many were horrified by John Brown’s crimes, but many others were inspired. One man who was so affected, present the day John Brown was hanged for his crimes, was John Wilkes Booth. History has many echoes.

This is not a definitive book of the era, but excellent shoulder content to some of the more central books about abolitionism and the Civil War. I’d recommend it as a companion piece to David Blight’s biography of Douglass. Cloudsplitter, by Russell Banks, is a great piece of historical fiction about John Brown. And Manhunt, by James Swanson, covers the Lincoln assassination and subsequent manhunt for John Wilkes Booth.  

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight

January 1, 2021

Frederick Douglass was never sure of his exact birthday or the identity of his father. He was born a slave in Maryland in 1818 and worked to learn to read and write, much of his education on his own. In 1838, he escaped to the North. He became a great abolitionist, a powerful writer and publisher, a proponent of women’s rights, and one of the greatest orators this country has ever known.

This 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Douglass is a sprawling overview of his life, the recurrent themes of his work, and the tumultuous times in which he lived. David Blight, a professor of history and African American studies at Yale (his free online audio course on the Civil War is excellent), has written extensively about slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and their impact on race in America.

Like other great heroes of history, Douglass is claimed by many groups. In the introduction, Blight recounts the ironic story of a group of GOP representatives wearing “Frederick Douglass was a Republican” buttons at a dedication in his honor in 2013, noting that modern Republicans like to focus on Douglass’s message of Black self-reliance and conveniently ignore his radicalism and pretty much every other political belief he held. This incident seems at first like a political aside, but it actually illustrates the central theme of Douglass’s life—the power of story.

Although—or perhaps because—fundamental elements of his own biography were unknown to him, Douglass had an innate understanding of the currency of narrative, the power that comes with being able to decide what stories have significance and how to tell them. This would play out with his own biography as well as his post-war fight against some of the counter-narratives rising out of the South.

In his lifetime, Douglass wrote three acclaimed autobiographies, showing how obsessive he was about discovering and crafting his own story. Like his biographers, he genuinely sought to answer the question, “Who is Frederick Douglass?” He searched his whole life for his father’s identity. But he also examined his memories for significance, recounted stories and, as a public figure in an evolving nation, was constantly adding new, interesting accounts to his repertoire.

Blight notes that while these biographies are a critical source for any Douglass biographer, and while the writing is powerful and poetic, Douglass often stops short of his inner conflicts and his personal travails. As public a figure as Douglass was, elements of his inner life remain frustratingly enigmatic.

Douglass was a believer in literacy and knowledge as power. Once he learned to read, “words had become a reason to live.” The King James Bible, Webster’s spelling book and The Columbia Orator were his sources of knowledge, and they remained influential throughout his life. As an orator, Douglass drew on the traditions of the jeremiad, a form of lamentation common in Puritan religious services. His style was influenced by the King James Bible, and he found inspiration from the prophets of the Old Testament. He spoke of slavery as a great sin, of the Civil War as an oncoming apocalyptic event.

Douglass was outspoken and unafraid to sling arrows at his allies and sponsors, often making his hosts squirm with his forthrightness. He stated that Blacks faced two enemies—slavery in the South and racism in the North. He criticized the army of the North for under-paying Black soldiers. He was a vocal critic of Lincoln’s compromise on the Fugitive Slave Act. He accosted churches for their hypocritical tolerance of slavery. He saw John Brown, generally an ally, as acting more for personal glory than true abolition. (Douglass fled to Canada after Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, for fear of retribution or charges of conspiracy.)

Invited to speak at a Centennial celebration in 1852, Douglass gave one of the most scathing reproaches of America’s supposed values, and one of the great speeches in the history of the country, when he asked:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

After the Civil War, after Lincoln’s assassination, Douglass fought to preserve the gains that had been made. It was, in many demoralizing ways, a losing fight. The unimpressive Andrew Johnson, whom Douglass had already judged “no friend of our race,” assumed the presidency after Lincoln. Reconstruction saw a focus on reconciliation, and Northern troops withdrew from the South to preserve the North-to-South peace. This left Southern Blacks largely on their own, and violence against them spiked.

Douglass watched another major blow come in the Civil Rights cases of 1883, when the Supreme Court abdicated the power of the Federal Government to the states, giving them alone the power to enforce civil and political equality. In the South, the cases were celebrated as a major victory, with newspaper headlines like, “Dixie Victorious, at Last Exalts!” and “Africa has been vanquished and it is settled forever.” In celebration, some towns held mock slave auctions, reasserting their freedom to be as racist as they damn well pleased. (These rulings were also the legal foundation for Jim Crow and a segregated South that would last, legally speaking, until the 1960s).   

“White racism seems to grow in proportion to the increasing distance from the time of the war,” Douglass observed. No advocate of outright violence, he saw no path to peace under the current circumstances. “There can be no peace when heels of one class are on the necks of another.”

In addition to the racism in the south, Douglass also recognized the insidious efforts to recast the history and causes of the Civil War. He actively fought against a portrayal of the war as anything other than a slaveowners’ rebellion for the specific purpose of preserving slavery. The Lost Cause was a “set of beliefs searching for a history.” In response to the attempts to venerate Robert E. Lee: “He was a traitor and can be made nothing else.”

Blight does not put too high of a gloss on Douglass. He portrays him as a hero, but with flaws. In his personal life, in his hypocritical views about Native Americans, and in his shift in his later years to a political insider, embracing the party system he had once held at arm’s length.

Douglass’s influence and moral clarity waned, perhaps, in these latter years. But he maintained his keen understanding that the struggles of our history are often the struggles about our history. “Douglass embodied the idea that history matters…The very nature of memory provided a subject of obsessive interest.”

And he knew that history moves, lives, evolves. That collective memory misremembers, especially under a constant pressure of racism and a white majority. He was prescient in this regard—that understanding is as relevant today, as we continue to recast versions of even recent events.

In the study of our history, Frederick Douglass is usually taught with the abolitionists, in the course on the Civil War, if at all. But that too neatly pigeonholes him, it would seem. We need people like Douglass in our history. He fits somewhere between Lincoln, the brilliant political maneuverer, and John Brown, the violent zealot. He was a towering intellect, but he possessed immense courage to accompany it. Driven by an incendiary purpose and a willingness to speak truth to power, Douglass pointed out the hypocrisies that have always separated America’s promise from its reality. He had a keen sense of history, even as he was living it.

Here, David Blight brings all that and more to light. This is a stunning biography about an inspiring American hero.

2020 Movie List

December 31, 2020

Say what you will about quarantine, it’s good for watching movies. Here are the films I watched in 2020, in order from best to Frozen II. I’m trying to watch the top 50 Westerns of all time, so I pulled those out separately. Also separated movies from family movie night with the kids, a separate list for documentaries, and another for shows.


The Shape of Water
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood
Pan’s Labyrinth
Jojo Rabbit
The Princess Bride
Back to the Future
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Ad Astra
The Professional
It’s a Wonderful Life
Knives Out
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Lady Bird
Star Wars: A New Hope (Episode IV)
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
Back to the Future II
The Devil All the Time
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Ace Ventura
Borat Second Moviefilm
I Just Don’t Belong in this World Anymore
Back to the Future III
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
East of Eden
Swiss Army Man


No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood
The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone)
Once upon a Time in the West (Leone)
Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Coens)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Dominik)
True Grit (Coens)
The Cowboys (1972)
Lone Star (Sayles)
The Proposition (Hillcoat)
Unforgiven (Eastwood)
Red River (Hawks)
The Magnificent Seven (Sturges)
Tombstone (1993)
True Grit (1969)
3:10 to Yuma (1957)
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Hell or High Water
Ride the High Country (Peckinpah)
One-Eyed Jacks (Brando)
Meek’s Cutoff (Reichardt)
Hateful Eight (Tarantino)
The Missouri Breaks
The Ox-Bow Incident (Wellman)
How the West Was Won
Winchester ’73 (Mann)
Vera Cruz (Aldrich)
Ride Lonesome (Boetticher)
Jeremiah Johnson
Bone Tomahawk


I Am Not Your Negro
The Birth of Cool
Pretty As A Picture: The Art of David Lynch
The 13th
One More Time With Feeling
Remastered: The Devil and Robert Johnson
Greatest Events of WWII in Colour
Making Waves
Lorena the girl who runs
Hornet’s Nest
Alt Right


The Mandalorian
The Queen’s Gambit
The Last Dance
Fargo Season I
The Outsider


Nightmare Before Christmas
Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse
Harry Potter Sorcerer’s Stone
Wizard of Oz
Wall E
Honey I Shrunk the Kids
Home Alone
The Willoughbys
Angry Birds 2
The LEGO Movie
Trolls: World Tour
Lilo & Stitch
Lilo & Stitch 2
The Simpsons
Star Wars Lego Holiday Special
The Jungle Book
The Little Mermaid
Neverending Story
Boss Baby
Parent Trap II
Zombies 2
Descendants 2
Descendants 3
Upside Down Magic
Frozen II