April 17, 2017
We've just come through a weekend ironically mixing threats of a nuclear engagement with Easter, the holy day which, more than any other, celebrates life. It seemed like a good time to back away from the news cycle for a bit and concentrate on spending time with friends and family. We had dinner last night at the home of my younger son and his wife, which two long-time friends from my years with the Customs Service also attended. For a few hours, a troubled world kept its distance.
It was also a good weekend for losing myself in books. I spent time with Gregory Benford's In the Ocean of Night, a brilliant novel in which a troubled world has to deal with visitors. Fortunately we have a protagonist much like Benford himself out front. (I can think of a few presidents I wouldn't want to see in charge during such an event.)
I finished The Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination by Pulitzer Prize winner Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onus. It's a gripping account of Jefferson's struggles with what he believes in, all men are created equal, free citizens not controlled by autocrats, while embedded in the cultural realities of 18th century Virginia and its slaves. I've always had trouble understanding how Jefferson and Washington, probably the two most influential founding fathers, were both slave-owners. When the question comes up, the standard response always seems to be that in the end they were both men of their times. But the way we define greatness is being able to rise above the culture. Neither of these guys managed to do it.
Abigail Adams plays a minor role in the book, which primarily highlights her disapproval of Jefferson, who was a political opponent of her husband. Ultimately, they reach an accommodation. Nowhere, though, is there any indication that Jefferson, or anyone else in that period, saw women as anything more than lovers and housewives. I can't help wondering how things might have gone had Abigail been considered for the presidency.
I've also been rereading Chris Hedges' The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress. It's collection of essays which takes on, among other topics, the damage being done to the United States by power-hungry politicians and corporations, Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, the desperate struggles in the Middle East, and the mismanagement of American power. It is as dark as anything I've read. Unfortunately I can't find much that Hedges has to say that I can disagree with.
The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century, by Peter Watson, is another potent book, which I've just started. This is a history that concentrates, not on war and politics, but on scientific breakthroughs, on influential writers, and, despite sections on topics like 'The Closing of the American Mind,' on generally good news and progress.
Finally, the Library of America took over part of my life again with its James Thurber edition. Thurber is always good for a laugh, and he is the author of my all-time favorite short story, "The Greatest Man in the World." Nobody should go through this life without reading it.