Issue #4: Literature for a Divided People

Plus, the book cover of the week and our favorite links from around the bookish web.

America is a complex place featuring a wide variety of experiences and perspectives and this, of course, leads to us often being a divided people. As a result, the publishing world features hundreds—probably thousands—of books that propose creative ways of unifying us, of helping us to see the world from new perspectives, of teaching us to walk in someone else’s shoes. (Choose the colloquialism you prefer.) The arts, and literature, in particular, have always offered the best entryway into empathy. This is one of the reasons Shakespeare lasts—why his canon continues to be influential and his work beloved. This is the subject that this issue’s featured book tackles. James Shapiro’s Shakespeare in a Divide America was named as one of the best books of last year by The New York Times. We asked our friend Tim McIntosh—playwright and actor and host of the Shakespeare podcast, The Play’s the Thing—to introduce this book to you. Who better than a Shakespeare expert? Besides, Tim recently interviewed the book’s author for his show. Plus, we have our book cover of the week and a bunch of links from the bookish web (including writing about the new Hemingway doc and Larry McMurtry’s canon). Enjoy issue #4 of The Goldberry Books newsletter!

Featured Book

Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future by James Shapiro

In his new book, Shakespeare in a Divided America, James Shapiro describes a production of Julius Caesar in Central Park. The play opened a few days after the election of Donald Trump and the show’s director deliberately cast Caesar as a Trump-like character, surrounding him with soldiers and lackeys wearing red hats, emblazoned with the phrase, “Make Rome Great Again.” New York audiences were thrilled by the conceit. After all, eighty percent of Manhattan voted for Hillary Clinton. They laughed at Caesar/Trump’s egotism and rolled their eyes when he compared himself to the North Star. 

But something happened to the audience, says Shapiro, when Brutus and Cassius assassinated Caesar/Trump. With the assassins drenched in blood, actors (surreptitiously placed within the audience) began to cheer wildly. New York audiences experienced a moment of dramatic whiplash. Is this what we wanted? Was this justified? Isn’t this horribly wrong?

Shapiro’s book, which has been nominated for the National Book Award, makes a fascinating point with two prongs. Shakespeare‘s work in America, he says, has been both common ground and battleground. Americans have long celebrated the English dramatist, more even than any American-born poet. Indeed, both Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth loved Shakespeare. Booth was a widely celebrated Shakespearean actor. Meanwhile, Lincoln would sit for hours, reading aloud his favorite monologues from Henry IV, Macbeth, and King John—often to a rapt audience of his friends and colleagues.

But despite their common love for Shakespeare, Booth and Lincoln interpreted his work in radically different ways. For Booth, Shakespeare was an anti-despotic crusader. For Lincoln, he was the wise teacher of kings.

This comparison is a microcosm of Shapiro’s approach. Shakespeare in a Divided America is packed with episodes from America’s ongoing theatrical debate over the meaning of Shakespeare’s plays. It’s a lively, insightful, and nuanced book—a welcome addition to America’s dramatic debate about our future and our past.

—Tim McIntosh

You can buy Shakespeare in a Divided America through Goldberry Books by going here.

Book Cover of the Week

The book covers we have shared in previous issues of this newsletter have mostly been complex and detailed—perhaps even busy—in their design. But some of the best cover art features an understated simplicity that adds up to a lovely sort of elegance. Abby Weintraub’s work on Cynthia Ozick’s forthcoming new novel Antiquities (out next week from Knopf) fits that bill.

Antiquities is getting rave reviews, too, so if want to snag a copy you can do so here through our page.

Around the Bookish Web

In The New Yorker, Hilton Als reviews the new documentary on Ernest Hemingway from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick which has been airing on PBS this week:

Although Burns and Novick scrupulously acknowledge the efforts Hemingway made to achieve his literary goals, the documentary makes less of a case for what he did on the page than for what he was doing off the page. In the end, this is not really the filmmakers’ fault; writers and writing don’t necessarily lend themselves to cinema, which is about movement and showing. Ultimately, talking about writing is rarely as substantive as reading it. “Hemingway” is a disembodied movie about a writer who was disembowelled by depression, alcoholism, sex shame, and vanity.

Related: Benjamin Shull wrote about Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises for the Wall Street Journal’s “Masterpiece” column:

Even those who revere Ernest Hemingway’s debut novel should admit that the author was something of a scoundrel to write it. “The Sun Also Rises,” published in 1926, turned Hemingway into a literary star overnight. It also played with the reputations of several of his real-life acquaintances who appear in the book as thinly disguised versions of themselves.

Meanwhile, Nick Cornwell wrote about his famous author father—known to his audience as John Le Carre— and mother for “The Guardian”:

For as long as I can remember, my parents have been defined by the work they did together, and by a working relationship so interwoven with their personal one that the two were actually inseparable. David’s first report of Jane, long before I was born, was that she had rescued his novel A Small Town in Germany when it was literally in pieces on the floor. Some of my earliest memories are of him reading, handwritten pages or typescript with annotations in black pen, sometimes physically cut and pasted in the days before computers, and her listening, absorbing, only occasionally responding, but always with immediate effect.