Books About Writers Who Made a Difference
Writers usually have much to say about history, even beyond their role in recording it. Kurt Vonnegut famously said, "History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised again."
Mark Twain cautioned, "The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes." H.G. Wells took an even darker view: "History is a race between education and catastrophe."
Occasionally, though, writers play a role in shaping history, sometimes because of what they write, and sometimes because, despite being writers, they put down their pens or got up from their keyboards and made important things happen.
Here are four recent books that examine where the writing life intersects with powerful social forces. These are stories about writers who made a difference.
1. Killing the Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism's Backlash, and the Assassination of a Journalist by Thomas Peele. Reporter Chauncey Bailey had been investigating the operators of a health-food store, Your Black Muslim Bakery, when he was shot to death on an Oakland street corner in 2007. "He became the first American journalist in a generation who was murdered stateside for doing his job," notes Julia Dahl in the San Francisco Chronicle. Peele's account examines a "three-decade reign of terror perpetrated on the people of Oakland" by a radical religious group, says Dahl. "Killing the Messenger will be a revelation to many readers, detailing 100 years of American history that simply isn't part of the mainstream lexicon," she writes. At a time when extremists are threatening freedom of speech throughout the world, the book resonates "far beyond the sidewalks of Oakland," says reviewer Scott Martelle in the Los Angeles Times. Although the prose over-reaches at times, the point is clear: "Bailey was a journalist, and he was singled out for murder to silence him." His death provoked action. Journalists teamed up to create the Chauncey Bailey Project dedicated to continuing the work that Bailey was doing. Kam Williams of AALBC.com, a website devoted to African-American literature, labels Peele's account "a riveting opus" that represents "a bittersweet victory for the fourth estate."
2. Carl Van Vechten & the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black & White by Emily Bernard. This is the unlikely story of Carl Van Vechten, a white intellectual who was a critic, novelist, photographer and, most notably, an eager patron of the Harlem Renaissance early in the 20th century. "He counted the black literati of the era -- among them Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Nella Larsen, James Weldon Johnson -- as collaborators and confidants," says Lynell George of the Los Angeles Times. Van Vechten's ubiquitous presence raised questions, however. "Was he an insider or an intruder? An advocate or a voyeur?" George asks. Part of the answer was that, as a critic for The New York Times and Vanity Fair, Van Vechten "pressed his highly placed connections -- most effectively Alfred and Blanche Knopf -- to publish the work of heretofore unheard of poets, essayists and novelists writing forthrightly about the black experience in America." Biographer Bernard focuses on "the articles, fiction, essays, and letters that Carl Van Vechten wrote to black people and about black culture, and the writing of the black people who wrote to and about him," says Harlem World Magazine. The story "feels alive with cocktail party conversation, vivid anecdotes, whispered intimacies and trenchant debates with friends and enemies," George observes. "It's a bit like eavesdropping on a historic work in progress."
3. The Lives of Margaret Fuller: A Biography by John Matteson. A child prodigy who devoured Latin and Greek at a time when most women were still confined to the kitchen, Fuller became one of the most influential feminist writers of the 1800s. The legendary Horace Greeley recruited Fuller to be the first literary editor of the New York Tribune, and she wrote a landmark tome, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, that helped to kick off the campaign for equal rights. Pulitzer Prize winner Matteson presents a psychologically rich biography of a woman who was in high demand as a conversationalist and yet something of a social misfit, says Melanie Kirkpatrick in The Wall Street Journal. "One especially enjoyable aspect of The Lives of Margaret Fuller," Kirkpatrick writes, "is the abundance of quotations from Fuller's letters and diaries." Laura Skandera Trombley of the Los Angeles Times calls the book deftly written but yearns for a deeper insight into Fuller's vast experiences. "What must it have been like," the reviewer asks, "to always be the smartest person in the room without any of the privileges accorded to men?" Mary Beth Norton of The New York Times says the well-written details of Fuller's life would benefit from a better glimpse of the era she lived in. Still, readers will admire Fuller's "spirit, intellect and courage," Norton says, "and they will appreciate her pioneering contributions to women's theoretical and practical advancement."
4. Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America by Christopher Bram. "No one would think of a gay writer now as an outlaw, at least until David Sedaris starts robbing banks," reviewer John Leland says in The New York Times, labeling this work, about writers who gained prominence during and after the baby boom, "mainly a reverie of a time past, seen through a romantic lens." Bram -- whose novel Father of Frankenstein was the basis for the movie Gods and Monsters -- sets out to recognize writers who helped to make a difference for gay Americans the way Margaret Fuller did for women. The roll call includes Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Edmund White and Tennessee Williams, voices who have in common that they were all exceptional talents. "Even for those familiar with these writers, Bram's book serves an invaluable, connect-the-dots function," says Claude Peck in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "It's also an amiable, opinionated and occasionally gossipy guide to famous feuds, love affairs and literary treasures worth rediscovering."
SecondAct asks: So what books are you enjoying? Share your recent reads in the comments field below or send me a message on Twitter @davidwferrell.
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