Great Books on Southern Christians and Goethe, the Good Book, Albright’s Execrable Book–and more

By Benjamin Schwarz

November 2003 ATLANTIC


A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow
by David L. Chappell
North Carolina

Chappell’s is one of the three or four most important books on the civil-rights movement, but because its conclusions will unsettle, or at least irritate, much of its natural constituency, it will surely fail to gain the attention it deserves. This unusually sophisticated and subtle study takes an unconventional and imaginative approach by examining both sides in the struggle: Chappell asks what strengthened those who fought segregation in the South and what weakened their enemies. His answer in both cases is evangelical Christianity. He argues persuasively that revivalism engendered the civil-rights movement’s solidarity, leadership, world view, and rhetoric. Inspired by what he characterizes as this “illiberal” faith, southern black activists led what was at heart a religious movement with political dimensions. Although previous historians have noted this, Chappell, a liberal atheist, goes further, contending, again convincingly, that the ethos of the southern black movement—its pessimistic view of human nature, together with its ultimately redemptive faith—was not merely different from but in essential ways antithetical to northerners’ tepid liberalism. He points out, for instance, that Martin Luther King’s often fundamentalist religious views and his excoriation of such elements of secular culture as rock-and-roll were positions foreign to his liberal sometime allies, and that the secular liberal creed of pluralism and political equality had proved inadequate and largely irrelevant to the contest in which southern blacks were engaged. (Chappell is especially, and justifiably, hard on the liberal pseudo-tough guy Arthur Schlesinger Jr., whose position on the race issue he sees as both bland and obtuse.) Chappell’s greatest insight, however, is to discern that the struggle against segregation triumphed owing not only to the religious views of southern blacks but also to the religious views of southern whites. Evangelical Christianity undermined whites’ segregationist convictions even as it bolstered the black community’s resolve—a fact that black leaders recognized and shrewdly exploited. By inventively mining archival material previously unexploited by civil-rights scholars (the correspondence of the White Citizens’ Councils and of the editorial secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Sunday School Board, for example), Chappell makes a brilliant point at once startling and obvious: in the struggle over segregation white denizens of the Bible Belt, no less than black ones, needed the cultural depth, tradition, and moral authority of their churches. But, as Chappell reminds us (the facts were always available but have remained unexplored), the segregationists got none of that. In the mid-1950s the Southern Baptists and the Southern Presbyterians each overwhelmingly passed resolutions endorsing desegregation, and appealing to all southerners to accept it peacefully (in the Southern Baptist Convention the vote was staggeringly lopsided—about 9,000 to 50). In a land that embraced literalist views of the Bible, nearly every important southern white conservative clergyman and theologian averred that there was no biblical sanction for segregation or for white supremacy. And the country’s—and world’s—best-known Southern Baptist, the North Carolinian Billy Graham, shared the pulpit with Martin Luther King in 1957, commended what he called the “social revolution” King was leading in the South, and, having no truck with what he saw as the modern, secular concept of racism, insisted, even in the Deep South and in contravention of local laws there, that his revival meetings (along with his ushering staffs and choir) be integrated. (As a student of both evangelical Christianity and southern history, I’ve long known of this heroic aspect of Graham’s career, but Chappell makes the important suggestion, alas undeveloped, that in fact the Graham revival of the 1950s and 1960s—a national, indeed international, phenomenon—was, by vitiating the forces of segregation in the southern white community, crucial to the success of the civil-rights struggle.) All this was plain to southern segregationists at the time, and indeed they understood that the white southern churches—although few clergymen were as stalwart as Graham—were their de facto enemies. (Which is why, for instance, the White Citizens’ Councils progressed from an anti-clerical to an increasingly anti-Christian stance.) Without the sanction of their churches, Chappell concludes, “the segregationists’ foundations in southern white culture were mushy. The segregationists had popular opinion behind them, but not popular conviction.” In elevating evangelical Christianity as a crucial element to both sides of the civil-rights struggle—and in recognizing that white southerners responded, however reluctantly and tentatively, to the force of the Christian message they shared with their black fellow southerners (an interpretation Leslie Dunbar, Christopher Lasch, and Joel Williamson adumbrated)—Chappell is one of many historians who are bringing religion to the forefront in the study of American history generally and of social and political movements particularly. But, of course, the crucial importance of the (black and white) South’s religiosity to the defeat of Jim Crow was long ago recognized by King, who always spoke of himself as a southerner, and who wrote of “our beloved Southland.” He understood what V. S. Naipaul, in his journey through the South in the mid-1980s, would call “the great discovery of my travels”: “In no other part of the world had I found people so driven by the idea of good behavior and the good religious life. And that was true for black and white.”

Current Affairs

Madam Secretary
by Madeleine Albright

This memoir’s publication provides ample evidence of the peculiarities of the book business, which is governed neither by the iron law of the bottom line nor by a high-minded commitment to producing literary works of lasting value—or at least of passing significance. Albright had been out of office less than a week when Harvey Weinstein, the thuggishly glamorous co-chairman of Miramax Films (no doubt just off the phone with Gwyneth Paltrow), tracked her down at a spa in Mexico to urge her to choose Miramax Books as her publisher. That any publisher would so ardently pursue this quarry is quite odd; that the tinseliest would is unfathomable. Nearly all high officials’ memoirs are as unrevealing as they are self-serving. (Albright’s, no surprise, lacks a forthright account of the Clinton Administration’s complicity, or acquiescence, in Croatia’s ethnic cleansing of the Krajina Serbs; of the decision to expand nato, the most sweeping expansion of America’s security commitments since the late 1940s; or of the causes and conduct of the war against Yugoslavia—the first war the U.S.-led nato waged, and one fought against a country that, however unsavory, posed no threat to any member of the alliance, least of all the United States. Readers will, however, find much State Department spin circa 1998, complete with the inevitable invocation of the lessons of Munich.) Moreover, such books promise to be boring, for when a former Cabinet officer—unlike, say, a record producer—reminisces, she perforce adopts the sonorous and bloated tone of one writing A Work of History, as she chronicles, for example, her speech endorsing “intercultural communications.” So Madam Secretary won’t be flying off the shelves at Costco, nor does it rival Memoirs of the Prince de Talleyrand. It’s neither better nor worse than others of its ilk, although the former secretary’s unwinning attitude and demeanor, which uniquely combine the attributes of the Democratic Party hack and the self-righteous Wilsonian, prove as irrepressible in print as they were when she sought and held office.

Literary Studies

Goethe, Volume II
by Nicholas Boyle

Few readers—even Atlantic readers—will actually attempt Boyle’s entire biography of Goethe. This, his second of a projected three volumes (which covers the years 1790 to 1803, and has just been released in paperback), runs 958 pages, and life, after all, is short. For years I shied away from Volume I (848 pages), and I read Volume II only when forced—I sat on a book-prize jury that was considering it. Once finished, however, I couldn’t wait to open the first volume. Even if you don’t read this opus, you should know about it: Boyle’s will remain one of the few towering works of biography and history of our time. Recognized as the sovereign intellect of his age—he was a poet, a playwright, a theater director, a philosopher, a botanist, and an expert in politics, mining (!), and optics—Goethe knew or corresponded with nearly every important European mind. This is a suitably rich study: Boyle writes with dexterous authority on the French Revolution’s impact on the Continent’s intellectual and political life; with emotional acuity about “the utter ordinariness” of Goethe’s love for his plump mistress (the mother of his son), and on Goethe’s ambivalent friendship with Schiller; with novelistic vividness on the Prussians’ horrifyingly chaotic campaign against the French revolutionary armies; with stylish engagement in summoning the “philosophical crucible” of late-eighteenth-century Jena (“intellectually speaking … the most exciting place in the world,” where Goethe, Schiller, Hegel, Fichte, Schelling, Humboldt, Hölderlin, and the Schlegel brothers were all writing); with fluency and originality in dissecting Kantian philosophy and the ideas of nearly all the major figures Goethe moved among (for those, like myself, far more familiar with English and French intellectual history, Boyle, the head of the German department at Cambridge, is a discerning and sympathetic guide to the intricacies of German thought and literature); and with deftness and sureness as he interweaves his (almost daily) account of Goethe’s life with an astute and innovative critical assessment of Goethe’s writings. Rarely is a definitive and magnificent work of scholarship so engrossing: Boyle’s very amplitude captivates the reader, as he slowly, commandingly envelopes you in Goethe’s mind and age.

The Scofield Study Bible, King James Version
2003 Edition

Frustration confronts the general reader shopping for an annotated edition of the King James Version of the Bible. It’s the single greatest work of English literature (even the most ungodly H. L. Mencken pronounced it “probably the most beautiful piece of writing in all the literature of the world”), and no one who hasn’t read it thoroughly should be considered well educated. But, of course, the Bible generally is a recondite book, full of obscure religious, historical, ethnographic, calendrical, even agricultural references. Moreover, some of the vocabulary and usage in the KJV, specifically, is archaic, and the translation itself is not infrequently inaccurate. In short, just as most serious readers would want an intelligently and meticulously annotated edition of Shakespeare’s work (say, the Arden or the Pelican edition), so they’d also want the same for the KJV. The difficulty for the reader approaching the KJV as a literary work is that none of the most detailed annotated editions are objective. That is, they all advance a particular theological viewpoint—and the best ones (the Scofield Study Bible, the Ryrie Study Bible, and the King James Study Bible) uphold a fundamentalist viewpoint that often heavily colors the notes, glosses, and cross-references. For instance, although Oxford University Press publishes this new edition of the Scofield, it’s not a neutral scholarly work; rather, it adheres strongly to a dispensational premillennialist theological orientation, and its notes lay out an elaborate chronology of dispensations (it holds that the Bible contains the key to prophecies about the Second Coming, and in fact the original, 1909 edition contributed enormously to solidifying dispensationalist dogma among fundamentalists and evangelicals). Interspersed with its sometimes stridently assertive interpretive notes are clearly written, objective annotations, enlightening maps, and even a table of biblical weights and measures. The annotations, though, don’t approach the scope and depth of those in the New Oxford Annotated Bible and the HarperCollins Study Bible, which represent the best in ecumenical British and American Bible scholarship but use the New Revised Standard Version as their text—a far more accurate translation, but one that utterly lacks literary distinction. Here’s an idea for—or, rather (from this secular reader), a plea to—Oxford University Press or HarperCollins: print the KJV text, have a scholar of seventeenth-century English literature annotate the obsolete vocabulary and usage, and add the New Oxford Annotated Bible’s or the HarperCollins Study Bible’s unsurpassed notes, concordances, and glosses. This would give us an authoritative and illuminating edition, perfect for those who wish to read the Bible as literature.

The Afterlife
by Penelope Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald, who died in 2000, was a very English novelist—quiet, restrained, precise. She admired those who eschewed “making too much of things,” and her ideals were of the sort that, as she discerned, George Eliot esteemed: “work, steadiness, harmony, peace.” The editors of this unusually intelligent and sensitively selected collection of her criticism have chosen mainly those pieces that explore the authors of the “books of her heart”—mostly minor, often overlooked writers who were, as she lovingly describes E. M. Delafield, “accurate, calm, and lucid,” and who composed books that could be considered “somber” if they “were less witty, and less deceptively mild.” Taken as a whole, Fitzgerald’s pieces on Delafield, Sylvia Townsend Warner, thePunch writers, Mrs. Oliphant (who excelled at what she called the “tragi-farce,” a form Fitzgerald clearly loved), J. L. Carr, and Barbara Pym define a writerly sensibility of which Fitzgerald herself was, sadly, among the last adherents. This book is worth its price just for Fitzgerald’s spot-on description of Pym’s mordant vision of the distance between the sexes: “If men are less than angels, Barbara Pym’s men are rather less than men, not wanting much more than constant attention and comfort. Their theses must be typed … endless dinners cooked, remarks listened to … and the forces of nature and society combine to ensure, even in the 1980s, that they get these things. Women see through them clearly enough, but are drawn toward them by their own need and by a compassion which is taken entirely for granted.”


Governor Reagan
by Lou Cannon

Cannon’s fifth book on Ronald Reagan is far from his best —largely because Cannon is covering ground (Reagan’s rise to political prominence and his eight years as California’s governor) tilled rather assiduously in two of his previous volumes. Still, Cannon—whose Official Negligence, an examination of the Rodney King case and the 1992 Los Angeles riots, remains among the two or three most meticulous, nuanced, and honest works of reportage I’ve read—is such a smooth storyteller, with insights so keen and a subject so fascinating, that readers will hardly care. He is especially trenchant in his assessments of the Communists’ squalid attempts to infiltrate the Hollywood unions, the transformation of the national Republican Party, the internecine squabbles that infected the California Republican Party, Reagan’s progressive environmental policies as governor (as opposed to the rather retrograde policies he pursued as President), and the reaction of Middle American Californians (represented by the Illinois transplant Reagan) to the Kulturkampf of the 1960s. The story of Reagan’s ascendancy as a political figure is, of course, the story of the ascendancy of the New Right in modern American politics, but this book confirms Cannon’s previous verdict (equally unpalatable to the knee-jerk left and right) that Reagan’s “conservatism was tempered and pragmatic during his eight years as governor and eight years as president.”

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