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1. Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961), was an accomplished translator and translated several works of literature from French and Italian into German, including the poetry of Paul Éluard and the plays of Luigi Pirandello.
2. He was a member of the Rosicrucian Order, a spiritual and philosophical organization that emphasizes the study of esoteric wisdom. 3. Schrödinger served as a naval officer during World War I and was decorated for his service. 4. He had a tumultuous personal life and was married three times. His first wife, Anny Bauer, died in an avalanche while they were climbing in the Austrian Alps. 5. Schrödinger had a keen interest in Eastern philosophy and incorporated some of these ideas into his scientific work.
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6. He was a vegetarian and advocated for animal rights. 7. Schrödinger was a close friend of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the two men often discussed philosophical issues related to science and mathematics. 8. He was a member of the Irish Academy of Sciences and received an honorary degree from the National University of Ireland. 9. Schrödinger was a proponent of the idea of "negative entropy," which suggests that the universe is spontaneously moving towards a state of increased complexity and order. 10. He wrote several popular science books, including "What Is Life?" which explores the relationship between biology and physics. SUGGESTED READING [table id=60 /]

1. Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961), was an accomplished translator and translated several works of literature from French and Italian into German, including the poetry of Paul Éluard and the plays of ...

Irish poet, dramatist, and prose writer, William Butler (W. B.) Yeats (1865–1939), is considered to this day as one of the greatest English-language poets of the 20th century. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
Paul Muldoon is the author of numerous books of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Moy Sand and Gravel. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He teaches creative writing at Princeton University and was formerly professor of poetry at Oxford University. Muldoon shares his insight into the life and work of W. B. Yeats. https://youtu.be/ZB7ji8tEHPk

Irish poet, dramatist, and prose writer, William Butler (W. B.) Yeats (1865–1939), is considered to this day as one of the greatest English-language poets of the 20th century. He received the Nobe...

Einstein and Oppenheimer examines the lives of two of the 20th century’s most consequential physicists. The book is not a conventional biographical treatment of the two men, but instead takes a look at their views on creativity, their spiritual philosophies and their various approaches to their own celebrity. As Schweber notes on many occasions throughout the book, these six essays are tied together by an interest in how Einstein and Oppenheimer negotiated their public identities after their most important scientific contributions had been offered to the world. Although the subtitle of the book suggests it might lionize its subjects, this is not a study of “Great Men of Science,” and Schweber is careful to place both men in the wider historical and institutional context of their times. In doing so, Schweber offers interesting—though ultimately not terribly cohesive—case studies of the various communities to which Oppenheimer and Einstein belonged and which they sought to create. Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein were recognizable to a broader public in ways that contemporary Americans would probably find difficult to recognize. Remarkable in their contributions to theoretical and experimental physics, they were at the same time extremely visible and consequential public men who offered—or tried to offer—guidance to their world on issues ranging from nuclear weapons to international relations to civil liberties. Because both of them viewed physics as a vital source of knowledge about the lived as well as the physical universe, they did not confine themselves to narrow technical questions or the rarified world of quantum theory. Both contributed to the development of interdisciplinary centers of learning (including the time they shared at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study; both advocated in different ways for internationalist solutions to the problem of nuclear weapons; and both grappled with philosophical and spiritual questions in an effort to comprehend a world where knowledge and power had rapidly outgrown their traditional ethical and practical constraints. What emerges from Schweber’s study is a portrait of two men who, though working in close professional and philosophical proximity to one another, nevertheless maintained very different views of the relationship between the scientist and the larger national and world community. Though both men participated in collective projects, working and advocating for others on behalf of real-world causes like education and nuclear disarmament, Einstein continued to believe that individual creativity and genius—embodied in the “great men” of history—shaped human experience in decisive ways. Oppenheimer, by contrast, insisted that human advancement was only possible to the extent that society “nurtured the long-term development of scientific knowledge” and utilized all the resources at its disposal to foster collaborative action (29). These broad differences in perspective were joined by more tense disagreements during the last decade of Einstein’s life, when the two worked together at Princeton and parted ways on political and professional matters. The chapter devoted to these tensions is perhaps the most interesting section of the book. It is one of only two chapters that deal with both men at once, and it does so by carefully exploring their philosophical backgrounds, their unique relationships to their shared Jewish identity, and their differences on political questions pertinent to the cold war. There are some problems with the book that general readers might find off-putting. Most frustratingly, Schweber occasionally lapses into highly detailed, convoluted remarks about physics. “An example is the principle of relativity, that is, the requirement of covariance of the equations of motion under homogeneous Lorentz transformations. Invariance under space and time translation of the origin of the coordinate system cannot be a relevant variable in the description of phenomena.” (97-98) Perhaps this reviewer would be more able to comprehend these sorts of statements if he’d paid better attention in high school physics class, but passages like this could have—and should have—been phrased less opaquely. This would seem especially so for a book pitched to readers curious to learn about the wider philosophical and political contributions of these inordinately interesting men.

Einstein and Oppenheimer examines the lives of two of the 20th century’s most consequential physicists. The book is not a conventional biographical treatment of the two men, but instead takes a look...

John Keats by Nicholas Roe

John Keats: A Literary Life, by R.S. White

John Keats (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views), ed. By Harold Bloom


The words “Romantic poetry” often conjure up some rather trite and delicate notions of dreamy, indolent writers wandering amid hazy fields of goldenrod, reveling in their withdrawal from the real world, quill pens aquiver in dawn’s dew-kissed reverie. But such a mistaken conception does damage to the writers of the Romantic era—and to us. Romantic poetry was more incendiary than flowery, a dangerous and dark recalibration of humanity’s relationship to the physical—and social—spheres, and its practitioners were among the more daring (and threatening) public figures of the nineteenth century. Odd then that a writer like John Keats has come to be seen as a sedate, dreamy opium-eater when in fact he was a brawler in every sense of the word: poetically, politically, and yes, physically.

The excavation of that Keats is one of the rewards of Nicholas Roe’s John Keats, a thoroughly researched biography that gives us the juvenile brawler, unflinching medical student, long-distance hiker, and occasional over-imbiber of everything from port wine to mercury (which he was taking to treat the symptoms of venereal disease which he likely contracted from a prostitute). Keats, whom Roe says “always lived on the edge,” was no shrinking violet.

Roe, a professor of English Literature at the University of St. Andrews and respected critic of the period, resurrects a vibrant Keats, though it’s clear the poet was weighed down from an early age by the specter of early death in his family (father, mother, brother). And while many readers associate Keats with Classical myth (the stories of which supplied him with many of his greatest works), Roe reveals how the poet mythologized his own upbringing, the contours of his mature poems formed in the poet’s parsing of the geography of his boyhood:

Keats, like many contemporary poets and painters, would be drawn to boundaries and limits, beaches, bridges, clifftops, caverns, autumnal mist and darkling dusk, alert to motions of ebb and flow in streams, sky, and sea in his own nature … The northern suburbs of London were where Keats’s life as a poet began and where much of his greatest poetry would be written.

The labyrinths of his suburban London boyhood gave him the physical geography for his work, but it was the shadows of mortality that gave him the psychic landscape he would return to, again and again. Roe makes a compelling argument for the devastating and lingering impact that the death of Keats’s father had on the poet—a cloud under which the young boy would never escape. That blow, coupled with his mother’s rapid re-marriage, left the nascent poet dazed and insecure, “wounded and rejected, his whole world overturned.”

Roe’s Keats toughs it out though, fighting his way (literally) through private school until he finds in art the constancy his own life always seemed to lack. But that immersion in art couldn’t overcome the poet’s self-conception as a failure—as a lover, medical man, and poet, and though he lived vigorously in his quarter-century of life, he died convinced he was a creature “blasted by an unlucky star.”

John KeatsKeats’ debt to the past—the classical past, or his own—remains a rich source of critical inquiry. R. S. White, Australian Professorial Fellow and Winthrop Professor of English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia, finds little overt mention of Keats’s own youth in the poems, making his John Keats: A Literary Life, a useful counterpoint to Roe’s work. White argues that “Keats reveals very little information, or even curiosity, about his childhood,” in a wide-ranging first chapter that rehearses the familiar biography while addressing British politics at the time, social hierarchies in London, and—what will become a keynote in Keats’s life, “the most common ailment … infection of the lungs evidenced in coughs, asthma, and consumption,” which would prove fatal to the poet.

Like Roe, White finds the young Keats to have been “far from effete or timid,” citing his “violent and ungovernable” behavior in his early youth (and his interest as an adult in boxing). White doesn’t spend as much time as Roe parsing what happened to Keats between 1816 and 1817 to make him forsake medics for poetry, but he’s comprehensive and detailed in his discussion of Keats the medical student (it’s the longest chapter in the book), exploring in depth the medical textbooks Keats would have relied upon in his studies. White suggests Keats might have been put off the medical life by the attitude of one of his books, a popular standard text urging doctors to divorce “feelings” from their practice: “The surgeon is deaf to the pain of his patient; he is insensitive to their expression, and forgets his present anguish … Real sensibility knows how to control the feelings and consists in a principled self-denial of present ease.” As posterity discovered, that simply wasn’t Keats.

White finds in much of Keats’s later poetry the echoes of the chemistry, botany, and “physic” textbooks he read during his medical apprenticeship—an immersion that also impacted his thoughts about the opposite sex:

These branches of study suggest to me Keats would have been more knowledgeable about social and sexual realities … as a medical student he would have learned much more about female sexuality than most young, unmarried men of the time.

White’s work makes excellent use of Keats’s letters to help establish the poet’s frame of mind as he penned some of the most beautiful and revered lines in the English poetic canon, and he does a superb job of bringing to life the final days of the then-consumptive poet, a “heroic shouldering aside of physical adversity as an embracing of transcendent, posthumous immortality.”

John KeatsThe source of that transcendence fuels the eclectic inquiries featured in John Keats (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views), one of the almost hundred such author-focused critical overviews edited by the eminent literary critic and Yale professor Harold Bloom. And, like most of the volumes in the series, this one is as wide-ranging as it is useful. Bloom begins by describing Keats’s struggles with Milton and Wordsworth (one of Bloom’s principal contributions to literary criticism has been his decades-long development of the idea of a poet’s “agon,” the struggle every major writer must engage in on the way to finding his or her own original voice). Claiming that for Keats “the hard victories of poetry had to be won against the more menacing values of poetic tradition,” his triumph—and his signal break with tradition—occurs in the poem “Ode to a Nightingale,” which is “the first poem to declare, wholeheartedly, that Death is the mother of Beauty.”

But Keats was myriad-minded, and his work incorporates multiple streams of literary influence, ranging from the Bible and Bacchus (as discussed in Jeffrey Baker’s “Nightingale and Melancholy”) to Dante (as explored in Marjorie Levinson’s “'Hyperion' and 'The Fall of Hyperion'”). All of the essays in the collection are well worth reading. Of particular note is Helen Vendler’s “John Keats: Perfecting the Sonnet.” Vendler is deeply acquainted with the sonnet (she’s written the single best guide to Shakespeare’s work in the form, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets). In discussing Keats’s early facility with the sonnet, for example, she sagely notes that “He was perhaps intrinsically more a meditative poet than a narrative one, and the sonnet is irresistible as a flexible container for meditation.” The same could also be said of this valuable addition to Bloom’s Modern Critical Views.

John Keats by Nicholas Roe John Keats: A Literary Life, by R.S. White John Keats (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views), ed. By Harold Bloom The words “Romantic poetry” often conjure up some rather tr...

How can you fit a complex life into a single book? Some biographies are so replete with research and sometimes criticism that they refuse to be confined, instead expanding into multiple volumes—some more successfully than others. Brian Boyd's Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years is one such success, a tome weighty with detail and analysis, all carefully woven into its subject's fascinating work and life story. Boyd takes as its subject not only the years in which Vladimir Nabokov grew up in Russia and in which he wrote in Russian while in exile, but also the nature of genius and its early manifestations in Nabokov's work and life.

The story of Nabokov's aristocratic childhood is intertwined with the Communist revolution, the liberal political career of his father, and the sensory and emotional experiences that contributed to making him the writer he became. His father, V.D. Nabokov, was a politician with great sympathy for the lower social classes, yet after the Communists took power, the family experienced poverty and exile. Nabokov himself studied at Trinity College in Cambridge, then lived in Berlin where he met his wife Vera, then Paris and finally—near the end of this volume—the United States. His first novels, too, were in Russian. This volume takes Nabokov past his first English novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, to the writing of his last works in Russian, including two unfinished novels that he would never complete until he began writing in English.

The most formative event of Nabokov's young years was the death of his father while protecting a liberal politician from assassination. Boyd traces the long foreshadowing of the tragedy in Nabokov's youth, showing how Nabokov's fascination with fate and destiny arose partly from his sense of fate's workings to bring his father's death to fruition. He allows Nabokov's own words to tell the story of when the family found out: “And Mother understood. I thought she would faint. She threw her head back somehow strangely, set off, looking fixedly before her, slowly opening her arms to something unseen. ‘So that's it?’ she repeated quietly.” Nabokov's sensitive rendering of grief makes this moment one of the most affecting of the volume.

He was a hard worker and a studious man, making the most of his genius. He is famous for having been a butterfly expert, a passion he discovered early in life; but he also published clever chess problems, studied topics such as Bely's metrical analysis of poetry, and, of course, read widely from Pushkin to Proust. He was unconventional; he resisted the classification of others as well as of himself, as when he refused to hide his wealth while at school in an environment hostile to the upper classes.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Vladimir Nabokov Vladimir Nabokov[/caption]

He fell deeply in love several times in his youth, having affairs whose real-world manifestations and literary reflections are well documented in this volume. However, the great romance of his life was with Vera Nabokov, whom he married and relied on for the rest of his life. Boyd portrays the romance of this pairing not only by describing it but by showing how The Gift is, in the final analysis, a celebration of the ways in which fate itself seemed to have brought him and Vera together. 

Boyd stuffs his book with literary criticism, unflinching in his assessments of the author's early weaknesses, but waxing poetic about the moments when Nabokov's genius shows through. Though he finds some things to praise about Nabokov's 63-stanza “University Poem,” Boyd refers to it wittily as a “63-piece set of fine china.” (Rather like Nabokov, he pulls no punches when he comes up with a good, sarcastic turn of phrase.) On the other hand, the chapter on The Defense, one of Nabokov's early masterpieces, includes expansive close readings of several masterful passages, including the opening, which Boyd compares to “a crack tennis serve delivered before we thought we were ready to receive.” Boyd argues passionately and convincingly against the common stereotype that Nabokov is a writer merely of wordplay and pun and idiosyncrasy, not a writer of humanity in all its tragedy and grandeur.

Sometimes the book delivers seemingly minor insights that open our eyes to the sheer magnitude of Nabokov's talents: for example, that The Gift's last paragraph, seemingly just a prose paragraph, mimics exactly the stanza structure of the end of Pushkin's masterpiece, Eugene Onegin. If Nabokov added such subtle and difficult-to-achieve layers of allusion to this paragraph, how expansive, how complex, must be the rest of his work. After reading this book one could be convinced that Nabokov's subtlety may be almost infinite, but Boyd unpacks enough of it to show the appeal and the rewards of independently seeking more.

Writing a biography of Nabokov presents a special challenge because Nabokov was himself a skeptic of the art of literary biography. The author must then have a special responsibility to prove its worth. Nabokov writes that a biography of Pushkin was the exception to his distaste because it is “a singular case of a man's outer life fusing so organically with his inner one, that the story of his actual existence seems a masterpiece of his own pen.” By quoting this description, Brian Boyd sets himself the challenge of living up to that exact description in his own work. And the result is convincing: Nabokov's life, as set forth in this volume, appears woven so closely with his art that each is equally inspiring as a testament to the possibilities of human greatness.

How can you fit a complex life into a single book? Some biographies are so replete with research and sometimes criticism that they refuse to be confined, instead expanding into multiple volumes—some...

"Relativity is about time. What could be more familiar?" Thus states Mermin on the first page of his book. Familiar indeed, but how easy is it to understand the Theory of Relativity?
It’s About Time: Understanding Einstein’s Relativity began as a series of notes and lectures Mermin, a physicist at Cornell University, wrote for his nonscientist students during the 1990s. The notes were continually organized and revised as students raised new questions. According to the author, only a basic knowledge of high-school algebra and plane geometry is needed to comprehend the theory. That said, he also warns that although the mathematical level in this book is elementary, it cannot be read like a novel. The book begins fairly easy, with Mermin’s explanation of events from two different frames of reference. To make it simpler, he gives each point of reference a name: Alice and Bob. The key to understanding relativity is to be able to change points of reference: “Take a situation which you don’t fully understand. Find a new frame of reference in which you do understand it. Then translate your understanding in the new frame back into the language of the old one.” (6) To be able to do this, visualization is crucial, yet not so easy to achieve. To illustrate this, the author includes diagrams and simple equations. Since his examples of moving frames of reference are at low speeds everybody can relate to, the concept isn’t difficult to grasp at first. It is later, when the idea of the absolute constancy of the speed of light is introduced, that the theory becomes a real challenge to grasp. As the book progresses, it becomes more difficult, with increasingly complex ideas and diagrams. Concepts of colliding objects, combining velocities, simultaneous events, and synchronized clocks are explained. Particularly fascinating are the chapters on moving clocks and sticks: Do moving clocks actually run slowly? Do moving sticks actually shrink? The reader will be surprised to find out that, yes, they actually do. The answer, of course, would depend on whether or not the clock or the stick is moving toward you or away from you. Mermin also explains the Doppler effect, the difference between the general and the special theory of relativity, and how both the objects that move at the speed of light and close to the speed of light behave in strange ways. In his chapter on space-time, he uses the idea of equilocs and equitemps, which he developed. Is this a book for the average lay reader or the beginner nonscientist? No. It is misleading to claim that the theory of relativity is easy to understand when even some physics and math teachers struggle with it. Most of the concepts in the book are a challenge to grasp for the nonscientist, especially those who have already forgotten their high-school algebra and geometry, and who didn’t take math in college. This is a book to read, re-read, study and ponder on. Beginners will have questions as they move through the chapters, questions that can only be answered by a teacher in a classroom environment. In this sense, this would make a fine course book. Mermin also intended the book for a secondary audience: undergraduate physics majors, graduate students, and even professional practitioners of relativity. Hence, toward the end of chapters, the author delves further into the subject and becomes more technical and complex. The problem with the book is that its intended audience – beginner, nonscientists and professionals (this last one even if secondary)- is too broad. How can one combine both readerships in the same book when dealing with such a difficult subject? The beginner will finish reading, only having grasped a small portion of it, while the professional will be left wanting more complex mathematics. Besides the profundity of the topic itself, often the passages are unnecessarily verbose and unclear, confusing the reader. Consider this example: “A particularly important collection of events, for an object small enough, on a length scale of interest, to be considered to occupy just a single point of space at any moment of time, is the set of all events at which the object is present.” (107). Given the rather steep learning curve of the book’s primary audience, the text should have been simplified by an editor. For the reader, the theory is hard enough to grasp also to have to deal with ambiguous sentences. Beginners who are interested in learning about the theory of relativity should first read Relativity Simply Explained, by Martin Gardner, before moving on to this book. Even then, Mermin’s book will be challenging outside of a classroom setting. It’s About Time should have been aimed at teachers of beginners and not at beginners alone.

“Relativity is about time. What could be more familiar?” Thus states Mermin on the first page of his book. Familiar indeed, but how easy is it to understand the Theory of Relativity? It’...

To call Ramsey Clark (1927-), Attorney General in Lyndon Johnson’s administration, and one of the principal architects of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a controversial subject, is an understatement. How to explain the volte face of a public figure who out of office defended America’s enemies—most notably Saddam Hussein? This is the challenge confronted by Lonnie T. Brown, Jr., the A. Gus Cleveland Distinguished Chair of Legal Ethics and Professionalism at the University of Georgia School of Law. 

Brown began this first biography of Clark without knowing how much cooperation he would receive from his subject, with no assurance that he could explain, let alone, reconcile the blatant contradictions that even Clark’s closest friends and admirers choose not to defend, let alone explain. It took Brown a decade to research and write his book, and even with Clark’s openness to biographical inquiry, the biographer confesses he had to abandon what turned out to be unpersuasive rationales for his subject’s behavior. Confronting the possibility that he could not complete his book, Brown ultimately arrived at a narrative that includes his doubts about any unifying portrait, preferring, instead, to share the process of interviewing Clark and his friends, reporting their perplexity over his puzzling actions.

If Brown cannot offer an overarching theory of the case, he is able to center his narrative on certain defining moments of Clark’s life, beginning with Clark’s investigation of the August 11-16, 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. Brown is impressed with Clark’s meetings with the community, with how he listened patiently to strident attacks on him as a representative of the government they distrusted and vilified. Out of the crucible of confrontation, he forged convictions that guided him for the rest of his public life. He developed a set of policies about community policing that presage what has been demanded by the Black Lives Matter movement. He codified his understanding of crime and punishment in his best-selling book, Crime in America (1970). 

Even as attorney general Clark resisted President Johnson’s pressure to prosecute the Black Panthers and other Black radicals such as H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael, Clark opposed J. Edgar Hoover’s wiretapping of Martin Luther King Jr., but went beyond that case to reject wiretapping itself as an invasion of civil liberties and ineffective as well. He regarded the police raids that resulted in the deaths of Panthers, other radicals, and even religious extremists like the Branch Davidians, as examples of establishment outlawry. This hounding and killing of dissenters, in Clark’s view, deprived the justice system of the integrity required to earn the confidence of those opposed to the government. Clark contends that he has been consistent inside and outside of government by demanding integrity in the administration of justice.

Brown canvases the opinions of Clark’s colleagues, some of whom think he acts out of guilt over his complicity in the actions of the Johnson administration during the Vietnam War, although in public and private Clark has rejected this psychologizing. Brown quotes Clark on the television program, Face the Nation: “I think each of us has an obligation to judge the present, and work for the future, and I don’t feel inhibited by the past . . . If I felt some mental block because of some position I took in the [past], I wouldn’t be worth anything, would I? You have to go on.” 

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Clark went beyond just opposing the war. He went to North Vietnam to denounce the American bombing of civilian populations. It was his highest moral obligation, he insisted, to make such trips. Not to have gone to North Vietnam, he asserted, “would have been extremely damaging to me as a human being.” Even so, for many, as Brown admits, such visits looked like siding with the enemy. Some prisoners of war (Brown quotes them) welcomed Clark’s visits and his efforts to stay in touch with their families. 

Brown describes Clark’s actions without endorsing them—in fact, he expresses doubts about many of Clark’s clients even as he tries to fathom Clark’s psychology and beliefs. To Clark’s way of thinking, Brown explains, he was holding his government to account and acting on his love of a nation that had violated its own democratic principles. Clark’s view of America as a degenerate democracy that has devolved into plutocracy has driven him to defend anyone he deems to have been demonized by his country. So even Saddam Hussein, in Clark’s view, deserved a defense. How Clark, a staunch defender of human rights, could turn Saddam Hussein into a victim is beyond Brown’s brief, so he does not really try to defend his subject’s choices. Indeed, Brown concludes in a somewhat muddled assessment: “America seems to have become Ramsey Clark’s demon and that led to his persistent evangelical denouncement of an opposition to it. This perspective attracted him to individuals and causes that cannot reasonably be explained, especially with regard to someone so unfailingly moral and principled.”

Brown examines the man himself, revealing his warm-hearted treatment of people, his role as a loving family man, and Clark’s engaging temperament as revealed to the biographer in their various meetings. Brown, an African American, testifies that he has never met a white person as comfortable as Clark is with Black people: “Never in my 54 years . . . have I met a white person who unquestionably views all black people as equal or better except for Ramsey Clark.”

The most influential figure in Clark’s life has been Martin Luther King, Jr., Brown asserts. King, Clark realized, did not let fear deter him. Clark believes, Brown notes, that fear has turned people away from understanding the plight of others. Brown sums up the results of fear this way:

Fear can corrupt by causing individuals to refrain from acting in a fashion consistent with their conscience, such as by tacitly accepting segregation in order to avoid any sort of confrontation. It can also inspire overtly corrupt behavior, as was the case with those who responded violently to peaceful civil rights protests. Fear of what the success of the movement might have meant for their positions in society caused these individuals to act repressively in an effort to preserve the status quo. Fear, then and now, can cause police officers to overreact to tense situations or to carry out their responsibilities blinded by stereotypes.

Our government, Clark contends, “wants citizens to be afraid in order to exert control over them and to limit their ability to be free.” 

The most poignant moment in this biography occurs when Brown spends time with Clark’s deaf and mentally disabled daughter. As Clark is talking affectionately about Ronda, she gets up from the couch and belches. She is unaware that she has interrupted Clark’s conversation with Brown, who suddenly realizes “how free Ronda was. She has no reason to care what anyone thinks . . . It occurred to me that her father has a very similar disposition, which may have been inspired or cultivated in part, by his relationship with Ronda. How else could he endure the unbelievably harsh criticism that has been hurled at him over the years?”

Brown writes in an informal, engaging way, but sometimes his prose is too much like loose talk and is filled with clichés: “dip his toe into,” “dragging their feet,” “out of sight, out of mind,” “going through the motions.” In describing how Clark is like his father, Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark, Brown writes “the apple certainly did not fall far from the tree.” He introduces a flashback as “a brief step back in time.” Sometimes the word choices are questionable as when he speaks of the “bratty conduct” of Watts rioters. Describing Dr. Kings opposition to the Vietnam war, Brown summarizes: We had inserted our nose where it did not belong.” 

Brown is refreshingly honest about those moments when he cannot get Clark to delve more deeply into his motivations. I think this is not uncommon with certain public and political figures who even at their friendliest withhold a part of themselves—perhaps both from others and from themselves. It was what I encountered in a relationship with the British politician Michael Foot, who like Clark, invited his biographer into his home, shared much of his personal and political life, and yet, in the end, reserved certain thoughts to himself alone, if in fact he went so far as to examine his own thoughts. 

To call Ramsey Clark (1927-), Attorney General in Lyndon Johnson’s administration, and one of the principal architects of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a controversial subject, is an understatement. H...

 
Arguably the most influential architect, designer, and urban planner of the 20th century, Swiss-born Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, 1887–1965), played a decisive role in the development of modern architecture representative of the industrial age.
Kenneth Frampton is the Ware Professor of Architecture at Columbia University, and the author of several books including Modern Architecture: A Critical History, Labour, Work and Architecture, and a book about the Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier who became a French citizen in his 30s. He joins us on Culture Insight to share his insight into the life and work of Le Corbusier.

  Arguably the most influential architect, designer, and urban planner of the 20th century, Swiss-born Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, 1887–1965), played a decisive role in the develo...

To understand the title of Debra Moddelmog’s 1999 book Reading Desire: In Pursuit of Ernest Hemingway is to anticipate the book itself. It is about a reading desire and a reading desire—desiring to read and reading to desire. In being a pursuit, it is a constant activity. And Ernest Hemingway is, of course, the subject of this desire. But if one looks solely at the subtitle, one will be grievously misled about what Moddelmog herself is pursuing. Reading Desire is not strictly a biographical pursuit of Hemingway.

First and foremost, it is the formulation of a theory on the relationship between reading and desire. Then it is a biography of Hemingway’s cultural image. Only after this does the book resemble a typical biography, and this is only to emphasize how the desire of readers/writers is linked to what is included in the biography of a writer. Reading Desire is an amendment of sorts to the constitution of Hemingway’s identity as the prototypical white, American, heterosexual man; he is more than this, if you wish to see it.

Despite being published 13 years prior, the posthumous publication of Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden haunts Moddelmog’s book. At the time of its release, there was considerable controversy over the cuts from the original manuscript, including elements that would have questioned the image of Hemingway as a “man’s man.” So significant were these deletions to the reappraisal of Hemingway—and dominant cultural notions of masculinity, sexuality, race,—that editor Tom Jenks and publisher Scribner were forced to defend their editorial decisions. Jenks himself essentially claims that he, Moddelmog snidely comments, “became a sort of medium for the spirit of Hemingway.” But it was not a novel written by “Hemingway’s spirit,” but a novel “written, in effect, by way of cultural myth.” Moddelmog’s critique of The Garden of Eden acts as the centerpiece of Reading Desire precisely because it shows how we are our desires and, as us, our desires are what we filter the world through. Her critique will likely be familiar to students of literary theory as it draws upon the major works that have influenced such theorists since their publication, including Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler.

So Moddelmog conceives of the author as a subject “always being invented” by those who discuss them. In the instance of Hemingway, this discourse takes the shape of a self-sustaining “sexist, heterosexist, and homophobic matrix,” wherein even the feminist critic’s adoption of the concept of “androgyny” simply reinstates the offending binaries (male/female; straight/homosexual; etc). It is here that Hemingway’s infamous death is adjusted to reproduce the historical author alongside the invented one. They exist in “a dialectic between the real and representational.” Practically speaking: even if an author only exists through writing, there would be no author without him having actually existed outside of his work. In this space Moddelmog structures her “anti-foundationalist” approach. Through a Lacanian lens of desire as “a desire for recognition by the Other,” an unattainable longing for “something else,” and seeing this desire as “indeterminate and unconscious ... inherently radical,” the title’s intent becomes clear. Reading Desire attempts to lay a foundation for an ethically and politically charged re-reading of Hemingway through amorphous desire. Amorphous desire, therefore, becomes a tool that “makes us aware that [binary systems are systems]” which can be understood and struggled against.

That this approach is old hat is not to say it’s not worth reading. Not only because Hemingway is still seen as the prototypical man’s author, or because the man’s author myth also lives on in the grit of Cormac McCarthy. Yes, this makes Moddelmog’s approach replicable with authors like McCarthy, especially her clarity with later issues not directly related to gender and sexuality in Hemingway’s writing, including racist, classist, and imperialist dynamics. It is impossible to avoid how, two decades on, these issues remain relevant; this is the oracular implication of the footnote “psychoanalytic narratives about desire are a means by which desire is socially coded rather than the ultimate judge of desire’s meaning.” Society constructs binaries to order and restrain desire, so as long as there is desire, there is also a need to desire desire. Yet, it is not only because of these factors that Reading Desire is still worth reading. It is the conclusion wherein Moddelmog brings the pedagogical into the social, distinguishing between “identity politics” and “pluralistic multiculturalism.” With this, she displays both how and why pursuing Hemingway matters.

Confusingly, these terms have reversed meanings today. Nowadays, identity politics is associated with attempting to “stabilize identity” within binaries, and “pluralistic multiculturalism” tries to incorporate hybridity—another sign that culture moves and we must pursue it. Unfortunately, this is also the place in which Reading Desire itself stops short. Moddelmog ends on a brief discussion of how teachers can bring this “antifoundationalist approach” to their students, using her own experience as an example. This is arguably the purpose of pedagogy: the teaching of desire. Ironically, this personal touch makes one realize the absence of society in general. Because, while one walks away from Reading Desire with an appreciation of the importance of engaging with culture through its literary authors, there remains the question of how to engage authors of other kinds and other ages. The universality of this approach is belied by the possible distinction between Hemingway and McCarthy (one being dead and the other being alive) or between another and self. If the author is mostly comprehensible post facto and riddled with cultural repressions, how can one put into practice the desire to desire one’s self? Perhaps that is for others to do; there were, after all, two in the garden of Eden.   

To understand the title of Debra Moddelmog’s 1999 book Reading Desire: In Pursuit of Ernest Hemingway is to anticipate the book itself. It is about a reading desire and a reading desire—desiring t...

Though Virginia Woolf was a talented, iconic writer, she was also mentally ill and, at times, bizarre. It would have been easy to tell her story in a straightforward biographical style, but author Priya Parmar chose to present Virginia through the eyes of her older sister Vanessa Stephen and in other epistolary forms.

With just a hint of what is to come in a letter prologue dated 1912, Vanessa and Her Sister begins in earnest in 1905. From the start, both Parmar’s mastery and the sisters’ truths are revealed:

“'You do not like words, Nessa,' she (Virginia) said.  'They are not your creative nest.' So, not a writer, I have run away from words like a child escaping a darkening wood, leaving my sharp burning sister in sole possession of the enchanted forest.”

Vanessa is instead a painter, but, as Parmar has rendered her, she is the cohesive force of their family, the hand that holds the bond of the famous Bloomsbury Group—an influential, eclectic group of English intellectuals, writers, and artists—and she is also the driver steering the course of this fascinating work.

The year is a remarkable one in these women’s lives; their father has just died, following the premature deaths of their mother and half-sister. It is the year after Virginia’s most disturbing mental breakdown to date, but not in the course of her life. Adults yet orphans, the two sisters live with their two brothers, having little to do with their half-siblings, the Duckworths: “What would Mother and Father think if they knew that the siblings and half-siblings had split so cleanly into two camps? Duckworths and Stephens, unwound at the roots.”

With their parents gone, Vanessa assumes the parental role as one brother clings to his identification as the baby of the family. Their move to Bloomsbury, England, has set them free to a certain extent, even if their lifestyle could be questioned: “And what if people are shocked that we have no curtains and hold mixed at homes and invite guests who don’t know when to leave? Only we live here, and we can do it how we like. Just us four. There is a lovely symmetry in four.”

But as the youngest brother passes away and Vanessa gets married, the gritty truth rises vociferously to the surface. Though not a love story by any means, the women’s loves and losses play a key role—in the story, in their lives, and in their relationship. When the story explodes, it does so with a force of a bomb dropped as nonchalantly as a leaf drops from the tree in the fall.

The truth of the story becomes ever more evident: it is not a tale of the artistic journey of two sisters but of Virginia’s journey into madness, a madness that takes her, her sister, and the reader to places unforeseen and unexpected, answering, or at least efficaciously attempting to, the ultimate question of the startling end of the talented writer’s life.

At first, Vanessa leaves hints of the true nature of her sister, a mention of odd behavior and of doctor’s bills, and then they mount from a rolling pebble to a crashing boulder: “She sat up in her attic room speaking in low frantic tones that rose and rose to shake the tall house by the shoulders. That time Virginia’s words unraveled into elemental sounds; quick, gruff, guttural vowels that snapped and broke over anyone who tried to reach her.” The peeks into their lives, sometimes hours apart and sometimes years, provide startling insights, but the flow sometimes feels somewhat uneven. The case can be made, however, that this was the author’s intent—to parallel what must have been the mind of Virginia herself. In the "commercial“ realm of literature, the work could be criticized for being slow getting to the crux. Criticism could also be made of the author’s decision to leave out any mention of the sexual abuse both sisters suffered at the hands of their half-brothers—abuse that Woolf herself recalled in her autobiographical essays, A Sketch of the Past and 22 Hyde Park Gate. But these piddling criticisms of this superb work would be trivial.

The clever usages of letters to and from other members of the Bloomsbury group allow a view from their seat, not merely from Vanessa’s diary entries. While a vivid firsthand account, an unvarnished glimpse into the minds of these real people pops up through their correspondence—sometimes unexpected and out of place—until the whole story is read: a tad discombobulating, the subject matter never to be touched again for great lengths of the book. As with any diary, the prose fluctuates with the writer’s thoughts, which are fragmented and disjointed but wholly organic and, most importantly, satisfying.

Vanessa and Her Sister is a complex literary offering of a complex literary life—literary in the modern sense, where the words and their arrangement become the focus, eclipsing the plot at times, at the least smudging it. Still, there is no denying the strangeness of Virginia—of them all—in the finely crafted prose, for it is as haunted as they are. Parmar delves deeply into the complex and confused layers of relationships, of all kinds and shades—brilliant white and thunderous black.

The author’s expertise and craft are rife. The instances of brilliant prose blossom throughout with pure poetic prose:

"The rest of us are still living on the borrowed fuel of potential and so far have not left deep footprints. But together we carry a brackish air of importance.

I have wanderlust. This year I want to travel—Greece? The drums of marriage are sounding. We four must clasp hands and flee.

The air feels different here. Gritty and tinted with a dusty light I do not yet understand.

The day stumbles and stutters and has forgotten its gait.

Vanessa stood up when grief knocked at the door. She turned squarely and put out her hand and took its hat and coat. There was no need for an introduction. They had met before."

A finely-crafted piece of historical, biographical fiction, a unique perspective on an ever-constantly fascinating life, an absolute must-read book.

Though Virginia Woolf was a talented, iconic writer, she was also mentally ill and, at times, bizarre. It would have been easy to tell her story in a straightforward biographical style, but author Pri...

Mozart. The name conjures up various images: a child prodigy playing blindfolded on the keyboard; a moody composer writing music on a billiard table; a man-child throwing his head back in high-pitch giggles. Probably thanks to the unforgettable, Academy Award-winning film Amadeus, these are the images that flash through our minds. The movie, however, is a mixture of facts and fiction and in a world where genius is an extremely rare quality we’re left with many questions. Almost 300 years after his death, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart continues to capture our imaginations as no other composer has. Where did Mozart’s brilliance lie? What made him the way he was? What factors shaped his personality and manner of creativity? To what can we attribute his genius? Was he the eccentric, immature child portrayed in the popular film? What is myth and what is reality? These questions and more are answered in Solomon’s absorbing, insightful work, Mozart: a Life. This hefty biography puts Mozart under the microscope, examining the musician’s life in detail from birth to death. Supported by numerous quotes from original letters and an impressive bibliography, the author offers us a fascinating glimpse into the many facets of Mozart-the child, son, brother, husband, man, father, composer, and genius. At the core of the story is the relationship between Mozart and his manipulative violinist father, Leopold. Indeed, Solomon focuses his character study on this close, obsessive father-son relationship that seems to have influenced and shaped the composer all throughout his life. From the time Mozart was three, Leopold began educating him in music. At four, the prodigy tried his hand at composing a concerto and invented his own primitive system of notation. At six, he picked up the violin and doggedly taught himself to play it. Not much later, the boy began writing operas. It wasn’t long before Leopold realized his son had been born with a special gift, which Leopold intended to exploit to his full benefit. Because youth passes so quickly, the senior Mozart wanted to take advantage of every minute. When it came to his son’s career, his motto was “Every moment I lose is lost forever.” (7) Once fully grown, Mozart wouldn’t be the miraculous attraction he was as a child. He wouldn’t be dubbed a “little magician” anymore. This knowledge pained Leopold to no end. Solomon spends a good part of the book probing into Mozart’s childhood, his interactions with his family—not only with his father but also with his musician sister Nannerl-and his early life as a celebrated child prodigy traveling across Europe and playing for rich families and members of the nobility. The anecdote of Mozart jumping on Marie Antoinette’s lap and declaring that he loved her with all his heart is a true one. Mozart is described as “quick to tears, stricken and often taken ill by the loss or absence of friends, bereft when his constant pleas to ‘love me’ were not reciprocated.” (7) According to Solomon, however, the idea that Mozart was irresponsible, needy, childish, quick-tempered and impulsive was brought to the extreme in a series of letters written by Leopold that were documented in a biography written by Georg Nissen in 1828. When one reads about Leopold and Mozart’s relationship, it is interesting to discover how parallel their lives were: Like Mozart, Leopold refused to follow the path his parents had set out for him; he wanted to make it on his own as an independent musician in a foreign city; because of his rebellious actions, he also brought his family’s wrath upon himself. “Unknowingly,” states Solomon, “Mozart was repeating, under duress, a narrative similar in its basic outline to one long ago played out by his father.” (211) Another remarkable—and sad—quality of Mozart’s life is the enormous disparity that existed between his extraordinary talent and the working opportunities he was able to find. Mozart believed his virtuosity as a composer of operas, which was his great ambition, was being wasted. In a time when musicians were treated by the nobility like servants, Mozart’s talents were little appreciated, and this was a constant source of unhappiness and frustration to him. This book is by no means a light read; the 500-plus pages are large, and the font is small. Solomon divides the book into four main parts: Beginnings, Salzburg, Vienna, and Endings. Each part contains many quotes from original letters, an assortment of black and white portraits, and copies of segments of Mozart’s music. This is a scholarly work, so the paragraphs are long, and the vocabulary sophisticated. However, the combination of the subject matter, the original letters, and Solomon’s perceptive observations bring the prose to life until, ultimately, the myth is replaced by the real Mozart, a man of flesh and blood. The author of books on Beethoven, Shubert, and Ives, Maynard Solomon, co-founded Vanguard Records and later became a music producer and a critically acclaimed musicologist. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Biography, Mozart: A Life is an engrossing, ambitious work that will delight classical musicians and educators. It is a book that should be in the reference shelf of every library and music school. For us simple Mozart fans, it is both a challenging read and a wealth of information on the life of an unusual, brilliantly gifted mind.

Mozart. The name conjures up various images: a child prodigy playing blindfolded on the keyboard; a moody composer writing music on a billiard table; a man-child throwing his head back in high-pitch g...

 
Irish poet, dramatist, and prose writer, William Butler (W. B.) Yeats (18651939), is considered to this day as one of the greatest English-language poets of the 20th century. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
Singer, scholar, stage director, producer, lecturer, teacher, and cultural activist, James Flannery is the Winship Professor of Arts and Humanities at Emory University. A specialist in the dramatic work of W. B. Yeats, he is the founder of the W. B. Yeats Foundation. He joins us on Culture Insight to share his insight into the life and work of W. B. Yeats.

  Irish poet, dramatist, and prose writer, William Butler (W. B.) Yeats (1865–1939), is considered to this day as one of the greatest English-language poets of the 20th century. He received t...

As a professor of English at Princeton University, Maria DiBattista specializes in British literature and Modernism, but she also has an indelible enthusiasm for writing about authors. In particular, she’s no stranger to the works of Virginia Woolf. She first tackled her work in Virginia Woolf: The Fables of Anon (1980), and then in First Love: The Affections of Modern Fiction (1991), DiBattista examined how writers like Woolf, but also D. H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy, to name a few, reinvented how we think about first love. This time around, Imagining Virginia Woolf singularly focuses on the life and writings of the famed English author, but—just like DiBattista’s previous work—it is a pastiche of Woolf’s writings. It is not a memoir or conventional biography about the life of Virginia Woolf. Rather, it seeks to explore the extent to which the real person was embedded within her novels, literary criticism, and letters. In what she calls “the figment of the author,” DiBattista is in search of Virginia Woolf—how she located herself in her writings and also in the fictive imagination of her readers. Imagining Virginia Woolf is not a book about her life. It will not, in a traditional sense, tell you everything you ever wanted to know about Woolf. What does it succeed in doing is layering not only how we read a book, but also the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways the author incorporated elements of her life into her work, and how that might impact our perception of her—who was she and what inspired her to write? The book is divided into three sections. In the first part, DiBattista defines “the figment of the author,” differentiating between a critical and traditional biography. The subject is Virginia Woolf, “the figment who exists as much in the minds of her readers as in the pages of her books” (9). In the second part, DiBattista identifies five dominant personalities that come out in Woolf’s work: The Drawing-Room Sibyl; The Author; The Critic; The World Writer; and The Adventurer. In each section, DiBattista thoughtfully intertwines Woolf’s real-life—her travels, frustrations, likes, and dislikes—with her writing. If you are not well versed in Woolf’s works, this book might serve as a good starting point, as it considers both the words on the page and her life experiences that likely influenced her writings. It is a complex negotiation, DiBattista suggests, between what we know of the real Virginia Woolf, and what we think we know from what she has written. The final section is an Epilogue that is only a few pages in length, but it is the first time we get the opportunity to look into DiBattista’s mind as she provides some insights about reading the works of someone she greatly admires. DiBattista explores the question, which Woolf herself asked nearly a century ago—how should one read a book—by starting with a short literature review of other books that have asked a similar question, such as Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read (2007) and Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader (2007). She does not, however, provide a similar literature review of critical biography. It might have been useful to contextualize the field by situating her book within a wider discussion. Though DiBattista does cite Roland Barthes’ Sade, Fourier, Loyola (1976), a work that she borrowed from in terms of understanding how an author leaves a text that impacts our lives, it might have added to her arguments if she contextualized the field of critical biography a bit more by placing her approach alongside other books that asked a similar question. Ultimately, this book is aptly titled, as it demands that you not only imagine who Virginia Woolf was, but also consider how you engage with her work. Imagining Virginia Woolf leaves room for readers to question Woolf’s writings and DiBattista’s arguments as well. You might find yourself returning to one of Woolf’s novels or a collection of her letters, to see if DiBattista was right after all.

As a professor of English at Princeton University, Maria DiBattista specializes in British literature and Modernism, but she also has an indelible enthusiasm for writing about authors. In particular, ...

1. William Faulkner (1897–1962) was reportedly inspired to become a writer by his great-grandfather, Colonel William Falkner (1825–1889), who, aside from being a soldier, lawyer, and politician also authored some novels, poems, a travelogue, and a play. As a child, Faulkner is thought to have said, “I want to be a writer like my great-granddaddy.”
2. Faulkner’s name was originally spelled “Falkner.” He added the “u” to make his name sound British and even affected an English accent. It was all a ploy to join the Royal Air Force in Canada during World War I because, at only 5’5”, he was too short to join the U.S. Army Air Corps. 3. Even though Faulkner never flew in combat during the war, he told everyone that he had. He walked around his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi in his uniform, with fake wings he bought in New York, and a limp that he claimed was caused by a wartime injury. 4. Before he became famous, Faulkner supported himself as the University of Mississippi postmaster but was fired for reading on the job; shortly afterwards he dropped out of college. Years later he wrote: “What an amazing gift I had: uneducated in every formal sense, without even very literate, let alone literary, companions, yet to have made the things I made.” 5. Faulkner based his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, the setting for most of his novels and short stories, on his real home in Lafayette County, Mississippi.
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6. While trying to publish The Sound and the Fury (1929), Faulkner suggested using colored ink to differentiate time periods in Benjy’s section, instead of indicating a shift in time with italics. He was told by his publisher, however, that no techniques existed to do so at the time. 7. Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 but didn’t actually receive it until the following year. The delay was caused by the Nobel committee’s inability to decide in time who to choose from all the notable candidates, including Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, and John Steinbeck, among others. (The three writers eventually did win the Prize, in 1954, 1957 and 1962 respectively). 8. While in Hollywood, where several of his books were turned into movies, Faulkner met Clark Gable. When asked to name the greatest writers of the time, Faulkner listed Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos, and himself. Gable turned to him and asked, “Oh, do you write?” “Yes, Mr. Gable,” Faulkner responded. “And what do you do?” 9. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy invited some Nobel Prize winners to dinner at the White House. Though invited, Faulkner, who was in Richmond, Virginia at the time, didn’t make the trip. The reason he gave for snubbing the President’s invitation? “Sixty miles is a very long distance to go for a meal.” 10. Faulkner’s favorite TV show was “Car 54, Where Are You?” He reportedly would visit a friend’s house every Saturday night to watch the comedy. SUGGESTED READING [table id=15 /]

1. William Faulkner (1897–1962) was reportedly inspired to become a writer by his great-grandfather, Colonel William Falkner (1825–1889), who, aside from being a soldier, lawyer, and politician al...

In another life, Max Weber could have been a lawyer. The man now called one of the "fathers of sociology" along with Émile Durkheim and Karl Marx earned a doctorate in law from the University of Berlin in 1889. Soon after, however, he found his true passion to be in the social sciences. All of us should be thankful he chose the life of the scholar. Weber was born in Prussia in 1864, the son of a civil servant father and a French Huguenot mother. From a young age, he showed an astounding mental aptitude. Concerned with the effects of history and culture on the development of modern institutions, his academic work included such lasting contributions as Economy and Society and The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

The latter book is alluded to in the title of Intellectual Work and the Spirit of Capitalism: Weber's Calling by the Canadian sociologist Thomas Kemple. Kemple chooses to analyze Weber through his written work as well as three lectures he gave during the last decade of his life: “Technology and Culture” (1910), “Science as a Vocation” (1917) and “Politics as a Vocation” (1919). Rather than view Weber's lectures in the historical context in which they were given, Kemple uses them to explain the development of sociology after Weber. This is done through a technique the author calls "sociological allegory": 

Our task is less to read Weber more deeply, extensively, and accurately in his own terms and according to his own times than to consider how Weber reads us. Our task is to find ways of listening to what Weber has to say about the predicaments we face, and, in particular, to consider how his insights and interpretations, as well as his errors, silences, and ambivalences, provide us with a sounding board for giving voice to the limits and possibilities of our age. 

Kemple attempts to explain how Weber's thoughts on capitalism and modern society inform the spirit of our times, characterized by what he calls the “globalizing spirit of capitalist democracy and its bureaucratic disciplines.”

This book opens by delving into the form of Weber's lectures, arguing that the great sociologist's methods are just as important as the content of his work. Kemple mentions his subject’s emphasis on value-freedom—a perspective by which the writer or speaker attempts to explain the surrounding world without passing personal judgment on it. Kemple calls this the “art of speaking sociologically” and argues that its emphasis on objectivity and perceived universality is crucial for understanding contemporary politics and economics.  

Weber's attempt to make sociology as scientific as possible (objective, universal and value-free) is mirrored in the development of democratic capitalism. Modern politics and economics emphasize form over content, legality and rationality over value norms and bureaucratic procedure over personal charisma. In Kemple's view, Weber’s work is as much a catalyst for these trends as it is a reflection of them. 

Case in point is the scholar’s references to Benjamin Franklin. The American icon is treated as a historical individual, a figure whom Weber uses to paint a portrait of the “spirit of capitalism.” Franklin serves as both a historical example of the capitalist and an enduring symbol of capitalism. To illustrate this point, Kemple cites a passage from The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:

And if we ask why should ‘money be made out of men’, Benjamin Franklin himself, although he was a colourless deist, answers in his autobiography with a quotation from the Bible, which his strict Calvinist father drummed into him again and again in his youth: ‘Seest thou a man vigorous in his calling? He shall stand before Kings.’

Kemple argues that Weber’s caricature is not entirely accurate; Franklin never used the phrase “making money out of men.” However, Weber portrays Franklin this way in order to mark the “pivotal moment when Calvinism seems to have been transformed and converted into capitalism.” Even today, this image of Franklin is used as an advertisement (or criticism) for rational, democratic capitalism.

This book is devoted to Weber's intellectual contributions, not his personal life. The author does, however, offer some interesting biographical nuggets. Several speeches cited by Kemple make clear Weber’s fervent German nationalism and belief in the country’s special historical path. This seems to contradict his stern emphasis on rationality. In a 1916 speech, Weber urged Germany onward in its war against Russia to the East and France and Britain to the West:

That we are now a people not just of seven but of seventy million, that has been our destiny. It has determined that inescapable responsibility before history that we could not withdraw from even if we wanted to … The force of this destiny, which we must uphold, has led the nation upwards, past the abyss and the danger of its downfall, up the steep track of honour and glory from which there is no turning back, and into the clear harsh air of the workings of world history.

This book is a success on two fronts. It offers a useful analysis of Weber’s intellectual contributions, as well as a compelling argument for how, long after his death, his work affected the fields of sociology, politics, and economics. It is a difficult book, however. Readers not well versed in Weber or contemporary sociology may find Kemple’s arguments difficult to untangle. And the author’s brilliance as a sociologist is not matched by writing talent. This book is too heavy on jargon at times. But Kemple succeeds in demonstrating that despite Max Weber’s death in 1920, his prodigious mind is very much alive and well.

In another life, Max Weber could have been a lawyer. The man now called one of the “fathers of sociology” along with Émile Durkheim and Karl Marx earned a doctorate in law from the Univ...