- March 16, 2012
Historian and bibliophile Brian Odom reviews a smorgasbord of four delights for the intellectually curious. It begins with Adam and Eve and a history of blame, then moves to Lucas Cranach, Benjamin Franklin and Reverend Whitefield, and Friedrich Nietzche — personalities likely never mentioned before in the same sentence. Enjoy.
Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People
by Charlie Campbell
The Overlook Press
“In the beginning there was blame. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, and we’ve been hard at it ever since.” So begins Campbell’s edifying glance into the never-ending world of blame. While the word “scapegoat” itself may have its provenance in William Tyndale’s 1530 translation of the Bible, Campbell argues that mankind has a much longer history of turning blame into a commodity to be shirked and assigned at will. Campbell takes readers through the usual suspects of scapegoats, from witches and Jews to the Treaty of Versailles (which brought an end to WWI and also provided Hitler with a platform for his rise to power) and Captain Alfred Dreyfus. It also introduces readers to some lesser known examples, from animal trials and excommunications to litigation brought against weevils. For Campbell, scapegoating is a result of man’s failure as a “meaning-seeking creature” to accept the inexplicability of life and has instead looked to myth, art and religion in our confrontations with a universe characterized by random adversity. This is an entertaining read that offers much food for thought.
– Brian Odom
The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther and the Making of the Reformation
by Steven Ozment
Yale University Press
In those tumultuous and critical opening decades of the 17th century, Reformation artist Lucas Cranach (1472-1553) produced a wide variety of stunning art that assisted in making “Luther the Monk” a household name throughout the Holy Roman Empire. In this intriguing account of the innovative artist’s life, an eminent historian of the era, Steven Ozment, engages Cranach’s contemporary critics and his modern ones, whose continued comparisons to the era’s phenomenal talent, Albrecht Dürer, misses the true originality and creative genius of an artist who produced the “Wittenberg style.” Ozment believes that this “style” presents viewers “with a kind of twilight zone where previously commanding orthodoxies no longer held great sway.” For Ozment, Cranach and Dürer occupy diametrically opposed positions in the history of German Renaissance and Reformation art, with Cranach’s themes of “fantasy and charm” contrasting with Dürer’s more direct milieu of “seriousness and power.” While the title of the book suggests more of a dual biography than is found within its pages, Ozment has produced a delightful and in-depth look into the art and legacy of an artist he describes as the “creator of an unredeemed, seductive world of beautiful women and powerful men.” The Serpent and the Lamb is packed with stunning images and brilliant analysis, a sheer delight for serious readers of Reformation era history and art.
– Brian Odom
When Benjamin Franklin Met the Reverend Whitefield: Enlightenment, Revival and the Power of the Printed Word
by Peter Charles Hoffer
The John Hopkins University Press
Avoiding the urge to simply rehash the lives of the two luminaries of the colonial Atlantic world, Hoffer skillfully transports readers to a time “full of possibilities and opportunities for those with ambition and vision”; a moment when a “partnership of mutual convenience” was developed, and the seemingly opposing forces of evangelical awakening and an enlightenment founded upon reason collided and gave birth to the modern age. Hoffer’s slim volume cogently explores the lucrative partnership forged by the printer Franklin and the preacher Whitefield that centered on the printed word. In Franklin, Hoffer finds a symbol of our own age, someone who if alive today would “have his own blog.” Franklin’s own “plain style” writings on both scientific and personal topics spoke to his audiences in much the same way as Whitefield’s biblical homilies, engaging individual readers in personal conversations. While the “affable and frugal” Franklin addressed secular themes and the “openly passionate” Whitefield fanned the religious flames of revival on his many tours up and down the east coast of British North America, Hoffer maintains that both men have much to offer modern readers. An excellent choice for readers interested in the colonial American world.
– Brian Odom
American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas
by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen
The University of Chicago Press
This book furnishes a panoramic view of the reception of Nietzsche’s philosophy in America by begging the question of how a society known for its anti-intellectualism and steeped in Puritanical orthodoxy could provide cerebral refuge for the philosopher synonymous with WWI-era German militarism and the “philosophical mastermind” of Nazi totalitarianism and brutality. Ratner-Rosenhagen locates the answer to this seeming paradox by focusing not on the philosopher’s prose and aphorisms, but on those in America drawn to the message of radical individual freedom. Heavily influenced by the writings of American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nietzsche’s own ideas crossed the Atlantic to a warm reception of readers who put them to use on both sides of the political and intellectual spectrum. Ratner-Rosenhagen argues that Nietzsche’s American readers employed his “unbounded ethical anti-foundationalism” in their own attempts to come to terms with modernity. She points out that the spokesman most closely associated with the resurgence of Nietzsche’s popularity in America in the mid-20th-century was the German émigré and Princeton philosophy professor Walter Kaufmann, whose 1950 work Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist brought a “redeemed Nietzsche back to life” while he became the authority on the author of Zarathustra in America. Although American Nietzsche is intended for an audience with more than a vague familiarity with Nietzsche’s philosophy, for readers of late-19th and early- 20th-century American philosophy this is a must read.
Written by Brian Odom