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Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) was a polymath whose interests spanned multiple fields including philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, and language. He is best known as “the father of pragmatism,” a school of philosophy whose principle that the usefulness, workability, and practicality of ideas, policies, and proposals are the criteria of their merit.
Rosa Mayorga is Chair in the Department of Philosophy at Miami Dade College and the author of From Realism to ‘Realicism’: The Metaphysics of Charles Sanders Peirce. She joins us on Culture Insight to share her insight into the life and work of Charles Sanders Peirce.      

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) was a polymath whose interests spanned multiple fields including philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, and language. He is best known as “the father of pragmatism,...

At first glance, an author known for family dramas set in rural Iowa might seem an odd fit for discussing the writer famous for depicting the poverty-stricken streets of London, but the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley manages to create a caring and understanding portrait of Charles Dickens. Smiley portrays Dickens as a man who knew how to touch—and manipulate—readers through his fiction, and explores how the greatest character Dickens ever created was himself. Smiley’s book Charles Dickens is a critical review of his life and work meant to further understanding of the work, world, and private life of this 19th Century British writer. Throughout, Smiley paints a picture of Dickens as a man whose social conscience kept him worried about the fates of the less fortunate, and who constantly offered perspectives on how to battle the world’s iniquities in his novels. In Smiley’s view, Dickens was a charming man who can best be understood by studying the great themes of his work. Readers do not need to be familiar with every one of Dickens’s works to read and enjoy Smiley’s study of the man, but it certainly helps to have at least a basic comprehension of some of his most prominent books. Fans of Dickens, who have read extensively from his oeuvre will derive the most benefit from Smiley’s criticism, but anybody who has seen an adaptation of A Christmas Carol and, at least, one other tale by Dickens and enjoyed them will find much of interest in this literary analysis. Charles Dickens is written from a critical biographical perspective. Smiley’s overview of his career starts in adulthood with his first writing jobs. Dickens’s formative childhood years, which proved to be inestimably influential on many of his books and his general worldview, is skipped over though there are some references to his unhappy youth. Dickens is presented as a man who found celebrity, cultivated a public image, and embraced fame tightly in his pursuit of literary greatness. The chapters are not divided by novel, like other books about Dickens, such as G. K. Chesterton’s studies, but instead a few, perhaps several, pages are devoted to each of Dickens’s works, and interspersed with glimpses into his private life. We see Dickens depicted as a loving family man who was not altogether comfortable with family life, who never stopped fancying himself as a stage actor, and loved fame as if it was one of his children, though Smiley downplays Dickens’s forays on the public stage. Other literary critics of Dickens, such as Timothy Spurgin, spend far more time on Dickens’s thirst for attention. Dickens’s family life plays a significant role here, most notably the breakup of his marriage. There are many references to the fact that Dickens had an infamous affair with a young actress while he was still married to the mother of his ten children, Catherine. The exact details of Dickens’s family life are shrouded in mystery and hotly debated by historians—for example, they disagree on just how devoted a father Dickens was to his ten children. There is one point that is uncertain. Also, Smiley repeatedly states that Dickens and his wife were divorced. But many other publications claim that Charles and Catherine Dickens were only separated, and not legally divorced. Divorce was not nearly as easy or common in the Victorian Era as it is today.  That point ought to be clarified. Here is a great paradox in Smiley’s portrayal of Dickens—she repeatedly stresses that he was a man of strong moral principles and serious concern for the put-upon segments of society, but she simply describes his attempts to destroy his estranged wife’s bonds with her children, and does not attempt to reconcile the man whose heart bled for destitute widows and orphans, but could not spare any sympathy for his wife or the friends who took her side. (p. 145). Smiley’s commentary on the end of the Dickens marriage is insightful, particularly her observation that Dickens was attacking the concept of “respectability” in his books. (pp. 142-143). Smiley also stresses just how badly Dickens behaved during the breakup of his marriage, writing that, “His actions throughout were hasty, self-serving, frequently furious, and often cruel. He showed a consistent inability to understand or sympathize with anyone who opposed his wishes or his views.” (p. 148). It is notable that the coverage of the separation of Charles and Catherine is one of the longest stretches of the book that focuses on his life rather than his works. Smiley breaks away from her job as a literary critic to act as a psychologist, often delving into Dickens’s mind to explain his actions though never to justify his behavior. (pp. 150-154). Smiley’s personal opinions are a frequent presence in her overview of Dickens’s books, but they are never overwhelming or strident. Our Mutual Friend is not one of Dickens’s best-known novels, but Smiley singles it out for particular praise. She notes that this work has not received the sort of critical praise that some of the other contemporaneous novels have enjoyed, but writes that, “At 820 pages, Our Mutual Friend is certainly one of the greatest examples of sustained perfection of style in the English language. At 820 pages, Our Mutual Friend is certainly one of the greatest examples of sustained perfection of style in the English language.” (p. 186). Rhapsodizing about his prose style, characterization, and improvement upon some of the best aspects of his earlier books, Smiley provides numerous reasons why this often-overlooked 1865 novel ought to be viewed as a masterpiece. In contrast, Martin Chuzzlewit is targeted as one of Dickens’s most flawed novels. Smiley notes that Dickens used this 1844 work as a chance to expand upon certain themes and social issues that had only been touched upon in earlier books. She comments that, “This tendency to expand upon each idea until it is driven into the ground is a feature of Martin Chuzzlewit more than of earlier or later novels, evidence that Dickens doesn’t trust his readers to understand the larger theme of which he is enamored, and it gives the novel a tiresome quality.” (p. 52). Smiley cites the wordiness of the novel and plot overreach as main reasons for the book’s lower critical standing, but it would have helped if she were to include more examples and explanations to justify her criticisms. Aside from Smiley’s own critical observations, this book does not provide much, if any, new information that cannot already be found in other studies of Dickens’s life and work, aside from Smiley’s own critical observations, but the original assessments make the book worth a read for anybody who wants to learn a little more about Dickens. This volume focuses mostly on Dickens in the Victorian Era, so there is nothing of substance about the early 20th-century modernist backlash, or Dickens’s later critical revival and rehabilitation, or how Dickens remains a prominent figure in popular culture today. The later omissions are perfectly understandable since limitations are necessary to keep the book focused and at a reasonable length. Smiley’s Charles Dickens is a collection of snapshots of a man who became “the first true celebrity in the modern sense.” (p. v). The contradictory images of a man who loved fame, preached charitableness and love while practicing selfishness and pettiness in his private life, and whose self-promotion created a legend are left without resolution. Smiley feels it isn’t her place to judge or claim to know the “true” Dickens, but readers will find themselves wanting to know more about the inner workings of this complex man.

At first glance, an author known for family dramas set in rural Iowa might seem an odd fit for discussing the writer famous for depicting the poverty-stricken streets of London, but the Pulitzer Prize...

When Alfred Hitchcock, the British Labour Party, and Margaret Thatcher are all mentioned on the same page—and it’s the first page—one can surmise that this slim book is going to be both entertaining and edifying. While the volume’s length might signal it as merely an introduction to its subject, in this case, Alfred Hitchcock’s films, author Michael Wood’s insightful review of those of Hitchcock’s fifty-three films he believes are worth commenting on, not to mention his erudition, qualifies it as a fascinating read. It is worth noting that Wood, a professor emeritus of comparative literature at Princeton University, acknowledges the work of Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light), Donald Spoto (The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock), and François Truffaut (Hitchcock), among others, and in the debate over the probity of Hitchcock’s personal life, he shades more toward Spoto’s position, at least regarding the director’s late-life attitude and manipulation of Tippi Hedren (The Birds, Marnie). Wood also touches upon the complexity of Hitchcock’s relationship with his wife, screenwriter and film editor (among her many titles) Alma Reville, and it is a casualty of the book’s length and subject matter, that he cannot make more of this for theirs was indeed an interesting marriage.

Wood’s overall thesis is that Alfred Hitchcock was an inventor and "a man [and artist] exploring not so much our pursuit of knowledge as the reasons why it is so hard to come by” (p. 24). Just prior to that quote, he lists a number of Hitchcock film titles that “glance at questions of knowledge” (p. 240): Blackmail, Secret Agent (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), Suspicion (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946), I Confess (1953), The Wrong Man (1956), and the two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, 1956). He might have added Foreign Correspondent (1940) as well. Wood also presents a tripartite framework that is the fate of Hitchcock’s characters: “to know too little, to know too much (however little that is), and to know a whole lot that is entirely plausible and completely wrong.” Judging by his subtitle for this book, we can see where Wood places Hitchcock the artist.

The two Hitchcock early films to which Wood devotes the most attention are The Lodger (1926), which is almost unanimously considered the first true “Hitchcock film,” and Blackmail (1929). With the former, a serial-killer tale based on a popular novel of a decade earlier, he focuses on Hitchcock’s artistic and technical inventiveness, and the seemingly against-type casting of Ivor Novello that can lead to some viewers, such as Wood, feeling ambiguous about the ending. Two versions of Blackmail were filmed: it was the director’s final silent and first talking picture. Wood’s brief analysis provides a nice insight into the open-endedness of the film.

Of Hitchcock’s British talkies, Wood can’t help but consider the much-discussed trio of the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps (1935), and The Lady Vanishes (1938). After all, these are the films that propelled Hitchcock’s career toward Hollywood. Of this trio, Wood is most critical of The 39 Steps (“some rickety plotting all around… this film seems like a good idea rather than a good movie” (p. 30)), but his larger effort in discussing these three movies is to show the more than quarter-century timeframe of their sources and influences, and the updating to the 1930s political milieu which made Germany the antagonist.

With the outbreak of war, it was natural for Hitchcock to carry this mindset to Hollywood when he made Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur (1942), the two 1942 short British War Ministry films he made to bolster morale in Free France: Bon Voyage, and Aventure Malgache, and even the postwar Memory of the Camps (1945, an unfinished work in which he helped select of footage of the Nazi death camps) and Notorious (1946). But among these, also, is a film that perhaps reveals Hitchcock’s ambivalent feelings toward Germany and Germans—Lifeboat (1944). This is not to say that Hitchcock was not ardently anti-Nazi, but he did admire and was influenced by the German avant-garde of twenty years earlier. German Expressionism was one of the earliest influences on the director. So it is nice that Wood devotes a little extra space to the film, pointing out that the situation—a group that is a microcosm of American society, plus a German U-boat captain, stuck on a lifeboat—is a little more ambiguous than it appears to be. He mentions how early reviewers, including Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, saw the film as an endorsement of “Nazi strength and willpower” (p. 58). Wood links this film with Notorious in which a group of Nazis work toward the resurrection of their ideology. Though he does not mention it, Notorious is probably the first film of a subgenre that included books as well as films, and which came to fruition in the 1960s in the years after the arrest and trial of Adolf Eichmann.

Of Hitchcock’s early Hollywood period Wood also admires Shadow of a Doubt (1943), for the doubling, for the musical trope of the “Merry Widow Waltz,” and for the contribution of Thornton Wilder. Wood even links this tale of an American Bluebeard with the Second World War, though his linkage could use a little more support.

After Notorious, Wood pretty much skips over the next half-decade of Hitchcock’s work with one exception, Rope (1948), which he describes as "a complex technical experiment in which echoes of Nazi theories took on a new philosophical life” (pp.69-70). The best-known part of Hitchcock’s “technical experiment” involved the long takes in which he shot the film and the manner by which he disguised the breaks so that the film appeared seamless. Wood admires the film despite its lack of plot, not simply for its technical achievement but for Hitchcock’s again depicting the ease of perversion of Nietzschean philosophy (for that is what the film is about). Yet he considers it a stepping-stone in Hitchcock’s artistic growth. “To go from Rope to Strangers on a Train,” he declares, “as Hitchcock did in three years, is a huge step artistically, from interesting practice to accomplished performance; but intellectually it is only a small hop” (p. 73). Wood then goes on to deliver a fine explication and analysis of Strangers on a Train (1951), including its departure from the logic of the real world and the psychology of the manipulative killer, Bruno.

Following this, Wood glides over most of Hitchcock’s 1950s work, what Patrick McGilligan called the “glory years.” Then he comes to Vertigo (1958). For Wood, Vertigo is the pinnacle of Hitchcock’s artistry, the capper to all the director’s psychological films—including those to come. After a couple of introductory paragraphs that chronicle briefly Vertigo’s history among critics and fans, he then discusses the film’s source material as a run-up to the nearly nine-page explication in which his enthusiasm for the film is unbridled. Thus: “For the first hour or so of Vertigo, the film’s curious authority, its extraordinary hold on us, arises from a mixture of the implausible and the irresistible. After that everything changes and all kinds of new questions appear and fail to go away” (p. 88). Clearly, Wood has thought about Vertigo quite a bit, and in the ensuing pages, he gives us something of a bravura performance in brevity and insight. The section on Vertigo is a nice little essay in itself.

One might expect a letdown after that, but fortunately for Wood (and filmgoers), Hitchcock followed up Vertigo with North by Northwest (1959). Wood devotes six pages to the film, in which he discusses, among other things, the notion of the MacGuffin, Hitchcock’s term for a narrative element—no matter how improbable—that keeps the plot moving along. He also quotes Hitchcock (in an interview with Truffaut) that in North by Northwest “the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!” (p. 101). And while he discusses the film’s iconic scene of a crop duster chasing and firing upon the protagonist (played by Cary Grant), he smartly declines to analyze the film’s ending.

If this book is any indication, the rest of Hitchcock’s career does not have much to offer Wood aesthetically. His reading of Psycho might startle those who consider it Hitchcock’s best, or even best-known, film: “Psycho looks, in the best sense, like a long television show made for a movie audience…” (p. 107). As if there is a “best sense” to that notion. Again he discusses briefly the iconic scene—in this case, the shower scene—but he also imparts a nice insider technical tidbit that helps the reader understand Hitchcock’s artistry all the more. The director insisted the entire film be shot with 50 mm lenses rather than 35 mm because they more closely approximated human vision. Regarding The Birds (1963), Wood is more inclined to discuss l’affaire Hedren than provide any analysis of the film other than to admit that it seems a throwback to Hitchcock’s prime. Of Hitchcock’s next four films, Wood adheres to the adage “the less said the better.” Wood’s interest is revived for Hitchcock’s last film, Family Plot (1976), in which he declares “I am probably alone in thinking that this film is almost in the same league as North by Northwest” (p. 114). He then goes on to discuss the film’s irony, the double meaning of the title, Hitchcock’s attraction to the source material, and connects the film to earlier Hitchcock films.

Since this is a book about Hitchcock’s films and not his life, Wood does not devote much time to the director’s final, unproductive years. Nevertheless, there is a melancholy feeling to those two pages that can only be relieved by watching a Hitchcock film—perhaps the catharsis that Hitchcock sought all along.

When Alfred Hitchcock, the British Labour Party, and Margaret Thatcher are all mentioned on the same page—and it’s the first page—one can surmise that this slim book is going to be both entertai...

The theory of evolution by natural selection, first described in 1859 by Charles Darwin, has often been described as the greatest idea ever conceived, besides being the predominant theory that binds together all of modern biology—something that in Darwin’s day was little more than “natural philosophy,” where practices like extensive collecting of animal specimens and prehistoric fossils often overlapped. Despite numerous opportunities to be proven wrong, the case for evolution has gotten stronger with the evidence—genetics, the fossil record, DNA sequencing. That doesn’t mean it’s without its detractors, however.

From the time Darwin published The Origin of Species, people have been critical of a theory that suggests their common ancestry with primates—or fish, for that matter, if you travel much further back. For many people, particularly in the United States, it seems more obvious (and more comforting) to imagine that everything around us was thoughtfully designed—making evolution a divisive political issue, despite its scientific validity. Nearly one-third of Americans doubt evolution, a statistic that is rather worrying to evolutionary biologist and prolific author Jerry Coyne, who undertook the idea to write Why Evolution is True to dispel "common misunderstandings and fears about evolution."

Even people who accept evolution or “think it’s a good theory” might not fully understand it, not realizing its implications, or that it’s not so much just some story of what happened, as it is a perpetual process—something we all too often impart without even realizing, and that’s the audience Coyne has in mind when he writes, brimming with such clarity on a rather complex subject, that fellow biologist Richard Dawkins declared, “Anyone who doubts evolution is either stupid, insane, ignorant … or hasn’t read Jerry Coyne.”

At the time of its writing, America had just recovered from Dover v. Kitzmiller, yet another well-publicized legal battle over the teaching of evolution in school, in this case, supplementing it with the “alternative theory” of Intelligent Design—which is sharply rebuked by Coyne at the end of the book. We tend to be overly worried about children becoming indoctrinated by creationism, but all too often, it’s the adults who are more at risk, many of whom become creationists after finding religion at a later age or were poorly taught the concept in school, to begin with, having a confirmation bias to filter out the evidence.

The evidence is overwhelming—in biological processes, in genes, in geographic borders, in the fossil records, and in the numerous defects our species suffers from—the result of what Coyne refers to as ‘poor design.’ The book is a simple breakdown of each layer of evidence, including some of the latest and more intriguing finds, such as the prehistoric fish Tiktaalik, the first creature to have wrists, first described by Coyne’s colleague, paleontologist and fellow science writer Neil Shubin. They’re a transitional form between fish and modern amphibians—just one of many examples to debunk the popular creationist claim that there are no such things as transitional forms.

He explores embryology—something that Darwin himself used as evidence to support his theory, and the numerous examples of vestigial organs—instances of snakes having legs as embryos, or whales using baleen that actually have teeth—revealing their distant land-living ancestors. Often, the case is made that vestigial organs probably do have a purpose—we just don’t know it yet. While that is sometimes true, the important thing is that the organ serves a function other than its original purpose.

He supplements the evidence with anecdotes of his career, from his days in grad school studying sexual selection in lizards—a pretty memorable example, as the male collared lizards with flashy colors, tend to attract more mates and pass on their genes to the next generation than those with more subtle coloration—demonstrating that “survival of the fittest” largely refers to reproduction—it’s not always the best who survive, but the ones best at leaving offspring behind. Aside from attracting mates, the bright colors have some major drawbacks, like also making you stand out to hungry birds of prey. All too often, we’re taught to believe that evolution always brings about better and more complex things, which is not always true—nor are the processes really as random as you may have thought.

Coyne’s book is easily one of the most important contributions and at the same time accessible books on biology on the market today—for evolution deniers and for those that may have just heard about it in school or read about it in a magazine, and for that matter, anyone who wishes to be scientifically literate.

The theory of evolution by natural selection, first described in 1859 by Charles Darwin, has often been described as the greatest idea ever conceived, besides being the predominant theory that binds t...

1. The actual family name of the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author (1902-1968) was “Grossteinbeck,” which his paternal grandfather shortened to “Steinbeck” when he first came to the United States from Germany.
2. The Steinbeck family home in Salinas, California, was a modest home that reflected the family’s middle-class status. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father worked various jobs such as managing a local flour mill. The family did not reach true financial stability until Steinbeck was enrolled at Stanford. His modest upbringing largely influenced the everyman, working-class protagonists within his novels. 3. Illness and accidents plagued Steinbeck from an early age. He suffered from pleural pneumonia, kidney infection, detached retina, shattered knee cup, stroke, and back injury. 4. Before becoming an established writer, Steinbeck held a number of jobs, both in his native California and in New York, where he moved in the mid-1920s. He worked as a farmhand, painter’s apprentice, and construction worker. 5. Steinbeck’s first novels went unnoticed. It was his fourth work, Tortilla Flat (1935) that propelled him into the public’s eye.
John Steinbeck
6. Steinbeck preferred to write by hand than on a typewriter. It is said he used 300 pencils to write East of Eden. 7. Seventeen of his works were made into Hollywood movies. Steinbeck also tried screenwriting. He received an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 movie, Lifeboat. 8. In 1947, Steinbeck traveled to the Soviet Union. His trip was one of the three travels he made to that country. Due to accusations of The Grapes of Wrath being a communist novel, coupled with his travels to the USSR, many suspected him of being a communist. He had been previously placed under FBI surveillance in 1940, the year after his novel was released. His trips to the USSR inspired A Russian Journal, where he wrote about his experiences in the Soviet Union. 9. Steinbeck owned several dogs throughout his life. One of them, a poodle, was featured in Steinbeck’s 1962 travelogue, Travels with Charley. 10. Steinbeck died of heart disease on December 20, 1968, in his apartment overlooking East 72nd Street in New York.

1. The actual family name of the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author (1902-1968) was “Grossteinbeck,” which his paternal grandfather shortened to “Steinbeck” when he first came to the Unit...

1. William Butler Yeats (W. B. Yeats) was born on June 13, 1865, in Dublin, Ireland. His mother, Susan, who schooled young William, spent endless hours telling him tales of Irish folklore, which, along with ancient mythology, would serve as a basis for many of his early works.

2. Yeats first met Irish Nationalist Maud Gonne in 1886 and would propose five times between their initial meeting and 1916, when he finally resorted to proposing to her daughter, Iseult, the subject of his poem "To A Child Dancing in the Wind." Like her mother, Iseult also refused.

3. Yeats met Lady Gregory, a longtime friend and collaborator, in 1897. Together they founded the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899. Yeats refers to her in his poem "These Are the Clouds."

4. Yeats and his sisters Elizabeth and Susan founded the Dun Emer Press (later changed to Cuala Press) in 1902 to publish work in support of the Celtic Revival. Of Cuala Press's seventy some-odd titles, forty-eight would be penned by its most famous founder.

5. The September following Iseult's refusal, Yeats proposed to George (Georgie) Hyde-Lees—who accepted. Yeats wrote, "A Prayer for My Daughter" for Anne Butler Yeats, born in 1919. Both Yeats and his wife used to participate in séances—she even had her own spirit guide.

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6. Yeats believed that world history revolved around 2,000-year cycles he called "gyres." How did he know this? Spirits told him. As strange as that may sound, there's some truth to the dark imagery found in his poem "The Second Coming" (1920), reflective of the chaos and fear many felt in post-World War I Europe.

7. In 1922, as a new appointee of the Irish Senate, Yeats spoke out against anti-divorce legislation. (He also chaired the committee that designed the first coins of the Irish Free State.).

8. Once he was famous in his own right, Yeats' former secretary Ezra Pound declared Yeats "the only poet worthy of serious study."

9. Yeats countered illness in his later years with a series of young mistresses, among them poet/actress Margot Ruddock and radical/novelist Ethel Mannin. It's thought these muses helped him remain a prolific writer to pen, what most critics consider, the strongest work of his career.

10. When Yeats died on January 28, 1939, his wife respected his final wishes to grant him a quiet, private service and bury him quickly in France. In 1948, the final stage of his wishes was carried out when his body was dug up and reburied in County Sligo, Ireland, where he had spent his childhood. The last lines of one of his last poems,"Under Ben Bulben"-"Cast a cold eye/On life, on death./Horseman pass by!"-were engraved on his tombstone.

1. William Butler Yeats (W. B. Yeats) was born on June 13, 1865, in Dublin, Ireland. His mother, Susan, who schooled young William, spent endless hours telling him tales of Irish folklore, which, alon...

On the final page of her book, author Lauren Arrington, a senior lecturer at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, quotes poet Louise Bogan referring to Ireland: “It’s not a country it’s a neurosis” 276. For many people, this sentiment is an accurate, if poetic rendering of the romantic Irish soul. Revolutionary Lives chronicles the exploits of a young Irish aristocrat named Constance and her husband Casimir Markievicz, a Polish artist. Constance came of age in the hopeful era that marked the turn from the 19th to the 20th century. Her world was a world of privilege where she attended parties and rubbed elbows with the glitterati of the European art communities. Arrington convincingly describes Constance as a somewhat conflicted combination of sheltered debutante and bohemian free spirit. Her move to London to study art and live off the largesse of her family is pivotal. In the teeming British capital, Constance came face to face with the intractable issues of her day: the imperfection of capitalism and the dilemma of imperial rule. The poverty she saw in London caused her to embrace socialism as a solution to the excesses of laissez-faire. Constance found herself in a world where literary commentary, radical political theories, and social movements simmered together in a heady brew. In her twenties, her worldview was increasingly defined by two ideas: Bolshevism or Socialism and an Ireland free of British rule. Constance was also active in the women’s suffragist movement, but in Ireland, this was increasingly a plank of the free Ireland platform that consumed her life. Her conviction that a free Ireland trumped all other struggles is evidenced by her commitment to building boy and girl scout clubs. As Arrington makes clear, these were groups explicitly formed to prepare kids to be recruits, even soldiers for the cause. They combined educational programs and physical culture and drilling in a way that can’t help but remind people of similar later efforts by Fascist Germany and Soviet Russia. Over several decades, Constance wrote numerous editorials and articles arguing her ideas forcefully in sympathetic Irish newspapers. Arrington includes several at length; one of them included the phrase “…exterminating the police” 75. This is a sentiment that resonates in the so-called Black Lives Matter movement in our own time. This was not hyperbole or bravado, as subsequent events would show. The best example Arrington provides is the Easter Rising of 1916 in which the agitators declared a free republic, occupied Dublin’s city hall and so became revolutionaries or outlaws depending on your point of view. The rebellion was quickly put down, and Constance and other ringleaders were put on trial. Some were executed and others, including Constance, served time in prison before being granted amnesty. Although the short rebellion failed, Constance became folk heroes in the tradition of Irish heroes before her. Arrington describes how Constance continued to agitate for Irish independence from British rule as well as for socialism to replace capitalism—twin evils in her eyes that were inextricably linked. To these ends, she became Secretary of Labor, but was disappointed she was not able to effect real change. A turning point for Constance and for Ireland came in 1921 with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which granted Ireland Dominion status. This was seen as a great victory in many circles, but for idealistic revolutionaries like Constance, it was the definition of surrender. Arrington describes how shortly after the treaty was signed Constance toured the United States, where many greeted her as a genuine hero. The trip proved only to be a reprieve from her struggles back in Ireland. Political alliances shifted as various groups pursued their own agendas and their own survival. Even Sinn Fein, a group she’d had intimate ties with for years, parted ways. Arrington summarized Constance’s state of mind this way: “Markiewicz was not only bitter toward her former Sinn Fein colleagues who she believed had betrayed the Republic” 248. Disillusionment and cynicism seem to have informed her later years in a way she probably could not have conceived of as a young art student in London. The romance of revolution had faded with the loss of friends, time in prison, and realities of political compromise. Arrington gives the impression that Constance was always caught between two worlds: the privileged family and her idealism and political activism with artists and revolutionary friends. As she grew older, she never lost her passion for a free Ireland, but she did begin to alter her view of what kind of country it should be. The utopianism of her youth had turned in a more pragmatic direction after years of bumping up against harsh realities. Readers interested in Irish history in general and the late 19th and early 20th-century political upheaval, in particular, will certainly appreciate Arrington’s research efforts and attention to detail. More casual readers will get a vivid picture of the period, even if the alphabet soup of political organizations can start to blur after a while. Arrington mentions that the fact that Constance being a female somewhat impeded her research efforts. She describes a situation in which many British archives from the period gave short shrift to females compared to their male counterparts. Arrington’s perseverance is rewarded with a comprehensive but manageable history of an important era in Irish and European history. She captures, in equal parts, the romance and the disillusionment felt by Constance and her fellow Irishmen who risked so much in their struggle for freedom for their beloved country. The human drama on display in the book will appeal to many readers, even if they aren’t normally interested in Irish history.

On the final page of her book, author Lauren Arrington, a senior lecturer at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, quotes poet Louise Bogan referring to Ireland: “It’s not a co...

1. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a heavy smoker, and reportedly smoked up to three packs of cigarettes per day.
2. He was a notorious womanizer and had numerous affairs, including a long-term relationship with the philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir. 3. Sartre was once arrested and imprisoned in Germany for participating in the French Resistance during World War II. 4. He was offered the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, but declined the honor, stating that he did not want to be "institutionalized." 5. Sartre was an atheist, and his philosophy of existentialism was heavily influenced by the work of Friedrich Nietzsche.
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6. He was an avid chess player and was known to spend hours playing the game. 7. Sartre was a vegetarian and involved in animal rights activism. 8. He was a left-wing political activist and supported Marxist ideology. 9. Sartre's plays and novels were widely popular and were often performed in Parisian theaters. 10. He was born with a form of congenital blindness called retinitis pigmentosa, which caused him to have poor eyesight for most of his life. SUGGESTED READING [table id=61 /]  

1. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a heavy smoker, and reportedly smoked up to three packs of cigarettes per day. 2. He was a notorious womanizer and had numerous affairs, including a long-term relat...

1. Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)—the author of marvelous works such as Crime and Punishment and The Idiot—had difficulty relating to his schoolmates. From his junior years at boarding school to his years in the military academy, Dostoevsky was surrounded by students who were either far too aristocratic or far too disinterested in the things he was.

2. From the beginning of his life, he witnessed profound suffering. He was raised on the Mariinsky Hospital property for the Poor, where his father practiced medicine. The things he saw in that hospital undoubtedly influenced the stories he would eventually create.

3. His parents were both devout Christians. From a young age, his mother taught him to read the Bible and instructed him in its study. In these private lessons, he learned how to read and write by the age of four. 

4. Dostoevsky was a member of a liberal discussion group that was sentenced to death by the Tsar. The moment before he and the others were going to be killed, news came that the group was to undergo a symbolic beheading. Instead of death, they were sentenced to four years in a Siberian labor camp. 

5. During his years under harsh labor, he suffered from frequent seizures. Dostoevsky had not known that he was prone to seizures prior to his punishment. After being released from the camp, his epileptic seizures persisted through the time of his death, causing much strain on his marriages.   

6. In 1846 he wrote his first book, Poor Folk. The 25-year-old writer was inspired to launch his career to afford his expensive hobbies of gambling and attending the opera. Poor Folk was a wild success, and Dostoevsky was able to resign from the military. 

7. After his first marriage failed, Dostoevsky met Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina. Upon making her his secretary, the pair fell in love and married in 1867. They had four children together. 

8. The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, once called Dostoevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov  “The most magnificent novel ever written.”  

9. Dostoevsky died on January 25, 1881, from a pulmonary hemorrhage. One of his last wishes was for the biblical parable of the prodigal son to be read before his children. His final words to his wife were: “I loved you and did not cheat on you once, even in my thoughts.”

10. Dostoevsky’s influence has extended beyond the written word. His novel, Crime and Punishment, has been adapted into film over 25 times. The Brothers Karamazov was made into a Russian mini-series in 2009 and met much acclaim from critics. 

1. Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)—the author of marvelous works such as Crime and Punishment and The Idiot—had difficulty relating to his schoolmates. From his junior years at boarding school to hi...

During the winter of 1943-44, as much of the supposedly civilized world was in the throes of WWII, four of the most brilliant thinkers of the century gathered in a small colonial-style house in Princeton, New Jersey. The home’s owner, Albert Einstein, hosted the informal get-togethers in his upper-floor study, where he, Bertrand Russell, Wolfgang Pauli, and Kurt Gödel congregated for weekly discussions. European by birth, all four men had been thrown together by the war, from which all but Russell had sought refuge at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. There, they wrote, occasionally lectured, and pondered a modern world that each had helped to shape but which had already escaped their grasp. Burton Feldman, an English professor at the University of Denver, wrote the first draft of 112 Mercer Street before he passed away in early 2002. Based on that preliminary work as well as “extensive notes” he left behind, Feldman’s longtime friend and former student Katherine Williams completed the project and ushered it to publication. The result is an erratic at times and occasionally compelling look at four intellectual giants of the 20th century, all of whom sought to comprehend a universe that seemed to be receding ever further from human comprehension. Feldman’s book is prompted by the fact that these weekly discussions occurred among men whose scientific excursions and personal relationships were so closely intertwined. The meetings themselves play almost no role in the discussion, however. Indeed, we know very little about them and cannot even be sure what they talked about or even whether all four were regular participants. All things considered, this is a strange plot device for a book. There even seems to be some doubt about whether Gödel was ever an actual participant. But while the meetings, as Feldman explains, “did not make history,” they “certainly embodied it” (5). Einstein’s work on relativity had shaped modern physics along with the younger Pauli, whose own work spurred the revolution in quantum physics; Russell and his younger colleague Gödel were philosophers whose work in analytic philosophy and logic, respectively, had earned them universal renown. These men also came together as rivals, as “giants divided by a generation” (ix). Pauli’s quantum physics, though it owed a great debt to Einstein, had dramatically altered Einstein’s physics by accepting indeterminacy and rejecting the postulate that “an objective reality” could be apprehended (14). Gödel, for his part, had merely “demolished” Russell’s premise that “mathematics was a complete and universal language and logical system” (15). All four, however, had already offered their most significant intellectual contributions; they were, in a sense, “past their prime” (7). Gödel’s “incompleteness theorem” — set forth in 1931 — was the most recent significant achievement among the quartet, while Russell’s most creative years were three decades in the past. The younger men among them, Pauli and Gödel, had, by 1943, passed through their most productive years as well. In the complex relationships among these intellectuals, we can discover what Feldman describes as the “pathos of science:” Scientists are “at once free and strictly confined, individual but ultimately subsumed” by events thoroughly outside his or her control (191). To emphasize the manner in which these men had seen their work and ideas overtaken by historical events, Feldman includes a brief chapter on the development of atomic weapons, which was only possible because their colleagues in Germany and the United States were pushing math, logic and physics toward the exercise of “brute power” (165). Feldman does not exactly tell his readers whether Einstein, Russell, Gödel and Pauli would have understood their meetings in this light. He surmises that they probably “spoke little about the war,” which would not have provoked much disagreement among them (198). He suggests that Einstein would have recognized that his own work had been “subsumed” and that his quest for a unified theory had proven no match for the latest research in quantum mechanics. As for the others, who can say? This lack of clarification is perhaps appropriate, given the book’s focus on the work of four men who in various ways undermined the notion of scientific or logical certainty. But the overall point of the book never clearly emerges into focus. The individual chapters, taken on their own, are interesting and illuminating. “Four Lives” provides a useful biographical survey of each character, while “Beyond Pathos” offers a decent overview of the role of physicists in the atomic projects being carried out in Germany and America. But the book as a whole feels unbalanced — the former chapter is about 90 pages, while the latter comes in at a mere 25. What’s worse, Feldman occasionally digresses into broader (and not very clearly articulated) considerations regarding the “decline of great scientists” — a question that is in itself quite interesting, but which does not form enough of a focus for the book to warrant inclusion.

During the winter of 1943-44, as much of the supposedly civilized world was in the throes of WWII, four of the most brilliant thinkers of the century gathered in a small colonial-style house in Prince...

Bruce Levine, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois and an award-winning author of books on the Civil War, quotes French statesman Georges Clemenceau observing Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868) nearing the end of his life, with his illness “progressing rapidly but his energies mounting still faster. Once in a while a sardonic smile, like a grimace, flickers over his livid face. If it were not for the fire smoldering in the depths of his piercing eyes, one might imagine life had already fled from that inert body, but it still nurses all the wrath of a Robespierre.” This is the indelible image of the Radical Republican congressman bequeathed to history, not merely to reform the post-Civil War South but also to rebuild it from the ground up with federal troops and legions of ex-slaves owning the land their former masters had shaped into a profitable plantation business.  Levine does not lead with that comparison of Robespierre and Stevens, placing Clemenceau’s observation near the end of the book because Stevens was not born a Radical—at least not exactly. Although representing Pennsylvania, Stevens grew up in Vermont, far ahead of most states in its own understanding of democratic rights. Starting in politics as a Whig, Stevens’s early views were moderate and even nativist, insisting on property rights to qualify for the vote, for example. As the Whig party broke up, Stevens realized what full democratic rights meant. He radicalized himself, arguing, for example, that children, regardless of class or race, deserved the same access to public education and not to regulate the poorest people to pauper schools.  After coming to Congress as a member of the newly established Republican Party, he began to pressure his colleagues in the years leading up to the Civil War to give no quarter to the South. While many Congressmen hailed the Compromise of 1850, which they believed prevented a civil war, Stevens predicted such compromises would hasten an inevitable reckoning with the slave power of states like South Carolina that threatened secession. Levine points out that Stevens did not launch his fiery declarations from a safe congressional seat. Northern voters were not concerned with the rights of African Americans. Some constituents were hostile to the notion that individuals would treat an inferior race on a par with white people. Stevens was consistently ahead of public opinion, confident that he could return home to Pennsylvania and persuade his constituents that he was right, and they continued to elect him. Stevens supported Lincoln while pushing the president to adopt more radical policies. Lincoln worried about losing the support of the slaveholding border states and had to be drawn reluctantly into offering an Emancipation Declaration that Stevens wanted right away to take advantage of slaves defecting from their masters. Lincoln eventually adopted Stevens’s bold approach, and in the end, the North depended on something like 200,000 African American troops to crush the rebellion.  Levine shows that Stevens could compromise when he regarded it as essential to his long-term goals. He preferred they establish the Fourteenth Amendment, outright, the enfranchisement of Southern black men, but he acknowledged the strength of Northern racist opinion. The founding fathers, he recognized, “had been compelled to postpone the principles of their great Declaration [of Independence] and wait for their full establishment till a more propitious time.” So, he supported in 1866 the Fourteenth Amendment, which, in Levine's words, provided that a “state’s House delegation be reduced only in proportion to the number of adult male citizens specifically barred from the polls.” Levine concludes: “He here offered a textbook lesson how to accept a necessary compromise without abandoning or concealing one’s own political position and preferences.”  Stevens often appears in popular accounts as a fanatic—not the right word for a man who used his intemperate moments to goad opponents while drawing defenders to his side. Levine describes riveting scenes that reveal Stevens’s civil and physical courage. After John Brown’s failed raid on Harper’s Ferry, Stevens said in the House of Representatives that Brown “deserved to be hung for being a hopeless fool” because he attempted to “capture Virginia with seventeen men” when it would “require at least twenty-five.” This was not the first time that Stevens's scornful humor provoked menacing congressmen, who, Levine reports,
leapt from their seats, rushing angrily into the space around his desk. Mississippi congressman William Barksdale brandished a Bowie knife. No one regarded such threats as idle. Just a few years earlier a South Carolina congressman had used a walking stick to bludgeon Massachusetts’s Charles Sumner into unconsciousness as he sat in his Senate desk. Stevens’s colleagues were not about to tolerate a repeat performance. Republicans including the body builder and amateur boxer Roscoe Conkling of New York moved quickly to defend the Pennsylvanian. Amid this tumult, however, Stevens maintained his accustomed calm demeanor, and when order had been restored he dismissed the episode as a “mere momentary breeze,” yet again confirming a colleague’s appraisal that this was above all “a brave man.”
Levine rushes past this episode. The point of Stevens’s rhetoric was to move men to his side, to show them, viscerally, what was at stake when they temporized with the thuggish slave powers. He wanted to demonstrate that not only was he unmoved by physical threats, but also that others would need to rouse themselves defending the just cause.  Abraham Lincoln's assassination dashed Stevens's plans for a revolutionary reconstruction. While many of his fellow Republicans supported the campaign for the newly freed, giving them equal rights, Republicans balked at the idea of confiscating plantations and redistributing the land to African Americans. The rights of property owners remained sacrosanct to these Radicals, even though the wealth of those planters derived from enslaved labor farms, as historian Ty Seidel calls the plantations in Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause. Stevens soldiered on, opposing President Johnson’s effort to make the Reconstruction Era no more than a program to reconcile the South to the Union. Stevens did his best, even as he was dying, to call Johnson to account through impeachment and came close to removing him from office. Unlike many of his Radical Republicans, Stevens did not waver in support of African American rights. Even as Republican majorities waned in the North and wearied of enforcing the voting rights and security of African Americans terrorized by whites steadily regaining control of Southern governments, he held to his belief.  Stevens knew he was dying. It was like the man to look ahead and set an example. Levine ends his biography noting that Lancaster County, Pennsylvania had only one racially integrated cemetery, where Stevens chose to rest with a monument that read: “I repose in this quiet and secluded spot not from any natural preference for solitude. But, finding other cemeteries limited as to race, by charter rules, I have chosen this that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life: EQUALITY OF MAN BEFORE HIS CREATOR.”

Bruce Levine, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois and an award-winning author of books on the Civil War, quotes French statesman Georges Clemenceau observing Thaddeus Stevens...

One of the most singularly talented pianists of all time, Franz Liszt (1811—1886) dominated the musical world of the 19th century. An unrivaled virtuoso who also composed his own music, Liszt laid the bedrock for the Late Romantic and Impressionistic schools that would follow him. To this day he is considered a musical genius who ranks alongside his contemporaries Chopin and Schumann as one of history’s most influential musicians.
Now, in the fifth decade of an illustrious international career, Misha Dichter has performed with virtually all the world's great orchestras. His critically praised classical recordings display a passionate and nuanced interpretation of Brahms, Liszt, Gershwin, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Schubert, and other master composers and has received the "Grand Prix International du Disque Liszt" for his recording of Liszt's piano transcriptions. He joins us on Culture Insight to share his insight into the life and work of Franz Liszt.

  One of the most singularly talented pianists of all time, Franz Liszt (1811—1886) dominated the musical world of the 19th century. An unrivaled virtuoso who also composed his own music, Liszt...

German philosopher of the late 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) boldly and daringly challenged the foundations of Christianity, traditional morality, and other prevalent social mores. He was at the forefront of the existentialism, perspectivism, and nihilism movements that emphasized the importance of human individuality and freedom; discovery of truth only in the context of our own perceptions and interpretations; and rejection of religious and moral doctrines.
Paul Katsafanas is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Boston University, where he teaches courses on nineteenth-century philosophy and ethics. His research centers on topics at the interface of ethics and philosophy of mind, including the way in which normative claims might be justified; the nature of self-consciousness; the nature of agency; the notion of drive; and the concepts of free agency and unified agency. Katsafanas’ recent book Agency and the Foundations of Ethics: Nietzschean Constitutivism was recently published by Oxford University Press. He joins us on Culture Insight to share his insight into the life and work of Friedrich Nietzsche.

  German philosopher of the late 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) boldly and daringly challenged the foundations of Christianity, traditional morality, and other prevalent social...

Richard Schickel has compiled an amazing array of articles and essays on the life and art of Charles Spencer Chaplin. Schickel, former film critic for Time magazine, has written many books about Hollywood personalities, including Elia Kazan, D.W. Griffith, and Marlon Brando. He has introduced Chaplin as “the Tramp Transformed,” and gotten five overviews of the actor (Andrew Sarris; David Thomson; Stephen M. Weissman; Elie Faure; and Andre Bazin). He fills out the anthology with details from people who knew Chaplin in the beginning, during early features, mid-life crisis, and late features. Schickel views Chaplin as actor, director, composer, and entrepreneur. As a whole, he sees the man’s work as one of an infinite talent, at times approaching genius level. He recognizes, however, the emotional difficulties Chaplin faced in defending his reputation as a silent film star, while on a personal level dealing with consequences of fame—womanizing, fans’ adulation—in addition to misunderstandings derived from being an Englishman in America. Andrew Sarris, in "The Most Harmonious Comedian," (p.45) states, “Charlie Chaplin is arguably the single most important artist produced by the cinema.” He feels that the decade of 1915-25 was Chaplin’s apex. He notes, as do other modern writers, that the Keystone/Max Sennett period was significant in the comedic development of the Tramp. Chaplin made a huge amount of money after Sennett—via Essanay (1915), then Mutual (1916-17), First National (1918-22), and United Artists (1923-52). While he could have been influenced by D.W. Griffith (Birth of a Nation-1915), in terms of development of a screen heroine (Edna Purviance, followed by Paulette Goddard), his analysis of comedy and romance remains unique for the period (A Woman in Paris, 1923). In David Thomson’s view, Chaplin was at his peak until the end of The Great Dictator (1940) but in transition to sound features struggled. Stephen M. Weissman felt Charlie carried the burden of his mother’s madness, likely from syphilis, following his father’s alcoholic death. His was a rags-to-riches story because of the sadness of his early life. Ellie Faure sees in Chaplin a Shakespearean brilliance—the character of the Tramp represents humanity’s struggles against the upper classes and the Gods; through laughter and stoicism, he persevered over life’s ironies and personal suffering. Andre Bazin views Chaplin as a mythical character (p.89)—“…Chaplin carries to absurd lengths his basic principle of never going beyond the actual moment.” Gilbert Adair notes the Tramp came from the East End of London and the Lower East Side of New York, and his earliest audiences (poor masses) saw him as one of their own. “(Buster) Keaton… is the more stylish… polished… felicitous artist… But Chaplin was greater than cinema. Every one of his films was a masterpiece. And his public was the world.” (P. 102) Gilbert Seldes says of Chaplin (p. 105): “He wanders in, a stranger, an imposter, and anarchist.” Alistair Cooke’s essay, “Fame,” goes deepest into the nature of Chaplin, the man in the early 1930s. He worked with the actor several summers and thought of him as “the living Aladdin” (p. 121). Unlike other reviewers who tear apart his work in “the talkies” (Monsieur Verdoux; Limelight; Knight of New York; Countess of Hong Kong, 1947-1966 period), Cooke saw Chaplin in and out of character, and observed his patient directing style—a continuum of ideas and trial balloons. He also saw his perpetual “adoration” with his public, troubles with four wives and countless other paramours (mainly teenage girls), as areas of separation between Tramp the character and Chaplin’s real persona. Further, Cooke notes that the denigration of later films coincided with the way Chaplin directed The Great Dictator (1940) at a time of high isolationism in America; his push to open a “Second Front” for Russia in World War II, conveyed during the Cold War period the impression that he had been a “fellow traveler” or communist sympathizer. However, Cooke is adamant that the revocation by the U.S. Attorney General of Chaplin’s entry visa in 1952 while sailing for Europe was purely vindictive, based on President Truman’s wish to have Chaplin leave the country. Numerous critics debate what Chaplin's finest films were. Votes include The Kid (1921); The Gold Rush (1925) - which Chaplin himself claimed was his best work - City Lights (1931); Modern Times (1936); and The Great Dictator (1940). Disputes exist over The Circus(1928) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947). A wide variety of opinion spans this anthology. Schickel is not afraid to present viewpoints severely critical of Chaplin’s work. George Jean Nathan considers him a sub-par director and actor, despite his supreme pantomime skills. Winston Churchill, in a section titled “Everybody’s Language,” says of Chaplin (p. 206), “ … poverty is not a life sentence. It is a challenge—to some, it is more—it is an opportunity.” In their early lives, he sees a parallel between Chaplin and Charles Dickens. Dwight MacDonald offers one of several views of Monsieur Verdoux. He feels it has many strong moments, but was shut down in 1947 by Chaplin after poor reviews because of the political climate of the times. A strong character, who murdered an heiress for money to support his family after losing his bank job, was so far removed from Chaplin the Tramp as to defy screen logic of the times. Other critics take Chaplin to task in Limelight (1952) because he decides to “talk out” his character- a defeated comic actor- rather than show his mentality through serious action. They view this as Chaplin’s last stand apologia for those who saw the Tramp, that visionary character, as too one-dimensional compared to more modern comedians such as Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers. Also, a question is raised: Chaplin wants the public’s love but is he willing to give it back to them in return? Finally, in “After the Gold Rush: Chaplin at One Hundred,” film critic J. Hoberman sees Modern Times (1936) as the anti-capitalist film and Chaplin in 1916-17 as a cottage industry that he found hard to live up to in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. His exile in Europe (1952-1977) was, as Cooke noted, largely self-imposed, and had a severely negative effect on his filmmaking. Despite this, the majority of the reviews see Chaplin in as many ways a pioneer and visionary of the 20th-century cinema, whose silent genius laid ground for comedy thereafter. His directing, while at times controversial, was the product of serious thought and much byplay. As far as Charlie Chaplin was concerned, deep down, life was much more than the comedy he showed on screen.

Richard Schickel has compiled an amazing array of articles and essays on the life and art of Charles Spencer Chaplin. Schickel, former film critic for Time magazine, has written many books about Holly...

Shakespeare (Edinburgh Critical Guides) by Gabriel Egan The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare by Emma Smith Studying Shakespeare: A Guide to the Plays by Laurie E. Maguire Shakespeare's Ideas by David Bevington
When climbing a mountain, it’s best to have a sherpa to aid your ascent, serving as a guide, helping you focus on the breathtaking views, and avoiding getting lost along the way. The landscape of Shakespeare’s works has attracted countless guides, many of them just as invaluable as their mountain-scaling brethren. Listed below are four such guides, each offering a vista that makes the experience of Shakespeare richer than a solo journey is likely to be.

Shakespeare, by Gabriel Egan, part of the Edinburgh Critical Guides series, opts for selectivity rather than comprehensiveness, focusing on a handful of the Bard’s plays. Egan, professor of Shakespeare Studies and Director of the Centre for Textual Studies at DeMontfort University (UK), is a prolific and highly respected critic of the period, and his knowledge of the context of Shakespeare’s plays is impressively displayed throughout the book, which has separate chapters on the comedies, histories, tragedies, and the problem plays and romances. General readers will get the most from the wide-ranging introduction, with an especially good discussion of how theater companies formed during the Elizabethan era (Shakespeare was, after all, a businessman, and this discussion of the business side of theater is a good counter-balance to the iconic “poetic genius” that we’ve been bequeathed.)

In the discussion of individual plays, however, the reader should be prepared to deal with some thoughtful-but-academically-inflected prose. References abound to “transformative quasi-theatrical events” and “the contradictory conditions of nascent bourgeois ideological practice within a framework of political repression.” As an example:

In the long term, an unhealthy society cannot survive, as Marxist critic Terry Eagleton quoted Freud observing: “A civilization which leaves so large a number of its participants unsatisfied and drives them to revolt neither has nor deserves the prospect of a lasting existence.” It is important to realize that we are here still in the conceptual domain mapped out by Plato.”

Marx, Eagleton, Freud, and Plato all have important things to say, of course, but sometimes it can seem like Shakespeare himself is getting shouldered out of the discussion. Still, for those already conversant with the critical contours of the plays under consideration, the book offers a valuable excavation through the bedrock layers of some of Shakespeare’s work.

Sometimes a fly-over can yield as valuable a perspective as a close-up inspection. Such is the comprehensive approach of Emma Smith’s The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare, a book that “does not assume any prior knowledge. Instead, it develops ways of thinking and provides the reader with resources for independent research.” The Cambridge Introductions are always useful, and Smith’s contribution to the series represents a perfect match between subject and author.  A Fellow and Tutor in English at Hertford College, University of Oxford, Smith is an eminent Elizabethan scholar (her lectures on Shakespeare have even been released as a podcast). She knows how to break down complex ideas into clear and helpful language. The seven chapters of the book cover most of the essentials (though a bit more biography and history of the period might be useful to the Shakespeare newbie). But, as Smith notes in her introduction, the book “engages less with facts than with critical approaches to Shakespeare.”

The opening chapter focuses on what for many readers is Shakespeare’s prime legacy: his characters. Hamlet, Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Falstaff—these and dozens of others are what many readers of the plays most remember. And their qualities have become a sort of shorthand for modern pop-psychologizing: we know what it means to label someone an “Iago” (opportunistic, scheming, treacherous) or a “Romeo” (romantic, impulsive, idealistic). Smith notes “The first appreciations of Shakespeare tended to praise his characterization above all other aspects of his work.” But she also explores the modern propensity to see Shakespeare’s characters as real people, reminding us that “Shakespearean characters are writing first, people second.” Her insights into character are always helpful, and often quite pithy, as when she discusses how the works are seen by some as poetry rather than scripts to be performed: “Poems don’t tend to come over very well on the stage; people do.”

She offers a very detailed discussion of the sometimes-chewy subject of the transmission of the texts through various editors and editions, and how the plays finally made it into the printed versions we have today (and why these versions differ—often markedly—from one another). Her deep consideration of the textual questions that surround the Shakespearean canon is so informed that one can’t but be a little disappointed that she never even mentions the authorship controversy—the quarrelsome but persistent debate that some scholars still regard with seriousness.

Throughout the book, Smith’s lucidity never desserts her, even in the somewhat technical issue of how the five-act plays are structured, and what elements comprise a comedy, or a tragedy, or the subdivisions of those categories into “problem plays.” Smith states simply: “If things end up better than when you started out, at least for the central character, the world is a comic one; it’s a tragedy where they are getting worse.”

Any author confident enough to start a discussion of Shakespeare by bringing up the O.J. Simpson trial probably deserves a reader’s ear. Such is the case with Laurie E. Maguire’s Studying Shakespeare: A Guide to the Plays. The book reads like a series of really engaging lectures on the plays, a kind of Shakespeare 101, aimed at an audience of undergraduates (or those who wish they had paid more attention as undergraduates). Maguire, professor of English at Magdalen College, Oxford, deserves great credit for connecting the dots between Shakespeare and the modern reader. She doesn’t stint on historical discussions of the period—she knows the terrain very well—but she is good at analogies that make the past come alive in the present. Not for her the lamentable trend in some quarters of academia to relegate Shakespeare to the dust bin of Western Culture. In fact, she finds the Bard more necessary than ever—and not just in the classroom:

This book is also a defense of Shakespeare’s relevance in a century in which his place in the curriculum is increasingly challenged, and so, by extension, a defense of the relevance of literature to our lives today. In a recent survey of 700 senior business leaders, 55 percent chose fiction or poetry rather than a book on business or management as the work that most influenced their career.

The book is comprised of chapters bunched under some useful themes, such as “Private Life: Shakespeare and Selfhood,” “Marital Life: Shakespeare and Romance,” and “Real Life: Shakespeare and Suffering.” Every heading comprises individual chapters on the plays, each tied in some way to the theme under consideration. Elements that would be potentially lost by limiting individual plays as representative of certain themes are more than offset by the careful discussion of each work as an example of some enduring component of the human enterprise, often distilled in simple yet profound utterances, as when she addresses the idea of mourning in Hamlet: “Life has 100% mortality. This is the message Claudius gives Hamlet at their first meeting in the play.” 

David Bevington, editor of one of the most widely used and reader-friendly editions of Shakespeare (the single-volume Longman edition, usually referred to by academics simply as “The Bevington”) has amassed a small mountain of work on the towering Shakespeare. His book, Shakespeare’s Ideas: More Things in Heaven and Earth, reads more like a reflective fireside chat after a mountain climb rather than a Baedeker guide to the terrain.

Bevington adopts an almost avuncular tone, his book reflecting “a lifetime of reading and teaching and intellectual conversation.” His insights are so deeply informed yet so congenially dispatched that one senses the lifelong learning and thinking processes that went into their formation. Professor Emeritus in the Humanities and in English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago, Bevington explores in this work the idea of Shakespeare as a great thinker, regardless of whether he was “learned or not” in philosophy, for “the plays and poems are full of ideas.”

And the range of ideas he considers reveals a myriad-mindedness worthy of his subject, ranging from religion and politics to sex and gender, and even acting. (“What does it mean to say that acting is an imitation? … What styles of acting can best achieve theatre’s function of holding the mirror up to nature? These things seem to matter greatly to Shakespeare.”)

Though the book will certainly be of interest to readers who (to borrow a phrase from the First Folio), the most able to him that can but spell, those with a long-simmering acquaintance with the Bard will likely find the work most illuminating, as it deals with some famous—and long-standing—issues that have been dissected by readers and critics of the plays for four centuries. But one will also find some unexpected critical epiphanies along the way, as in this final chapter dealing with the idea of closure in Shakespeare:

It is as though Shakespeare works his way through a dialectic of thesis and antithesis toward synthesis. In an artistically self-aware gesture, he seems interested in how a play ends and how a writer’s career should end. Shakespeare seems to be summing up what it means to be a person, a man, a husband and father, a writer, a dramatist.

In other words, a grand summing up by a master—which could also be said of Bevington’s book.

Shakespeare (Edinburgh Critical Guides) by Gabriel Egan The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare by Emma Smith Studying Shakespeare: A Guide to the Plays by Laurie E. Maguire Shakespeare’s Id...