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American Tough: The Tough-Guy Tradition and American...

American Tough: The Tough-Guy Tradition and American Character, Rupert Wilkinson (Harper & Row: $7.95). Interpreting a culture on the basis of a single trait is dangerous and daring; there is a chance, of course, that the author might find a master key, but the odds favor oversimplification, not original insights. Unfortunately, the former outnumber the latter in this 1984 work. The premise is fascinating: Only American pop culture has fully developed the notion of a super-hero. Tarzan, Spiderman and the Lonely Rider of the Old West stand tall despite alienation and an underlying sensitivity; Superman shows the potential of “special genetic breeding.” Yet, instead of exploring the implications behind these telling cultural artifacts, Wilkinson spends more time over-generalizing about toughness in politics, corporate life and literature: “Emerson’s writing combined the tough and the untough. . . . The American tradition of toughness is a multiple of opposites.”

Religion and the Decline of Magic, Keith Thomas (Scribner’s: $18.95). Astrology, witchcraft, ghosts and fairies are thriving when this study begins. The setting is 16th-Century England, and the medieval church is declining. Magic that supposedly had appeared in the shrines of the saints or at the sacrament at the altar now can be seen in the streets, thanks to a new generation of individuals who flaunt their “powers” as fervently as another emerging social group--merchants--sells products. We don’t view this revolution from the eyes of those who stirred the magic potions, however. Keith Thomas is more interested in examining how superstition managed to captivate the attention of respected scientists: “The mystical conviction that numbers contained the key to all mysteries,” for example, “had fostered the renewal of mathematics.”

Trivializing America: The Triumph of Mediocrity, Norman Corwin. (Lyle Stuart: $9.95). On a day charged with significant social and political events, the network newscasts in America lead with a story on the new Coke. Elevator “music engineers” find new ways to anesthetize. Politics and pop culture play to the superficial and lose sight of the subtle. Convinced that today’s younger generation has either become oblivious to this “trivialization” or resigned to accept it, Norman Corwin, a distinguished writer and producer, issued this warning last year. A good part of what concerns Corwin--trends in sports and movies, or the fact that a Los Angeles radio station intentionally played a 90-second piano piece 840 times--might strike others as harmless. Corwin, however, realizes that “example has always had more followers than philosophy” and that bad examples can set “in motion a kind of vast dynamo that generates and renews its own energy like the batteries of a hurricane.” He has thus composed this eloquent appeal to “the conscionable core, the humane marrow of America.”

The Great Frontier, Walter Prescott Webb (University of Nebraska: $9.95). In 19th-Century Europe, “frontier” meant boundary; in America, it stood for opportunity. In this 1952 attempt to discover what makes us “American,” Walter Prescott Webb affectionately profiles the people who redefined the frontier. Colonists left Europe, writes Webb, because, unlike the majority of the European people, they saw themselves as more than minor actors in history’s grand scheme. The only problem with “The Great Frontier,” which is otherwise impressive in its scope and depth of scholarship, is that Webb becomes so impressed by the power of individuals to build that he forgets our power to destroy. Thus, toward the end of the book, he quite seriously suggests that Americans “make an advance on (Brazil’s) Amazon Valley.” Doing so, he writes, “would result in a net gain to the wealth of the Western World.” Of course, in redefining wealth, Webb has excluded the hundreds of species of plants and animals that would be irreparably destroyed by the development.

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PAIDEIA: The Ideals of Greek Culture, Volumes 1-3, Werner Jaeger; translated from the German by Gilbert Highet (Oxford: $12.95). Werner Jaeger’s record of the Greek tradition lives up to the ideals of Paideia: It is a scholarly account of historical events as well as an intellectually disciplined interpretation of how those events influenced individual minds. Jaeger wrote the volumes during World War II, presumably dismayed by contemporary culture and politics, for he is convinced that “the culture of the present . . . needs illumination and transformation by (the Greek) ideal, in order to establish its true meaning and identity.” The first volume traces the growth of Greek culture during the archaic and classical epochs; volumes two and three begin with the fall of the Periclean Empire, exploring, respectively, the spiritualization of Greek culture and the conflict of cultural ideals. The volumes forward a vision of individuals as the product of history, a perspective that many will find foreign today, an era in which history often fades away after the nightly news is over.

NOTEWORTHY: The Sailor From Gibraltar, Marguerite Duras (Pantheon: $8.95). A beautiful woman roams the world in her yacht searching for a sailor from Gibraltar. Joined by a young Frenchman, bored with his job and his mistress, she tries to achieve a closer connection to the sunny world that surrounds her. Slow Dancing, Elizabeth Benedict (McGraw-Hill: $4.95). While in college, Lexi Steiner had it all figured out: An ardent feminist, she would opt for the fugitive life style. But now, 10 years later, none of her ideals seem to work. This novel about life in the fast lane was nominated for the 1985 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction. First Love and Other Sorrows, Harold Brodkey (Vintage: $5.95). A series of sketches about youthful American love, first written in 1954 and illustrating why critics have been comparing the author--who has yet to publish a novel--to everyone from Marcel Proust to Sigmund Freud. The Barracks Thief and Selected Stories, Tobias Wolff (Bantam: $6.95). Winner of the 1985 PEN/Faulkner Award, this collection looks at isolated people trying to maintain a sense of conviction and purpose despite the contradictions and challenges of contemporary society.


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