Jesus H. Jones
He rode out of Texas in the depths of the Depression and was credited, during his reign as chairman of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), with saving American capitalism and mobilizing the nation for World War II. “You’d better see Jesse” became a mantra in New Deal Washington, referring to the pug-faced, fast-drawling Houston banker named Jesse Holman Jones.
Under Jones’s watch, the RFC and its subsidiaries lent hundreds of billions (in today’s dollars) to farmers, banks, railroads, and city and state governments, as well as various “incubator” enterprises, such as the Rubber Reserve Company, which pioneered synthetic rubber. Given his unprecedented power—which provides the apt title of Steven Fenberg’s meaty new biography—it’s no wonder that in 1941 Time magazine dubbed Jones the second most powerful man in Washington (after President Franklin D. Roosevelt). Roosevelt himself teasingly called him “Jesus H. Jones.”
Fenberg, a community affairs officer at a Houston foundation Jones founded, has two objectives: to tell the story of this largely forgotten figure and to demonstrate how his ideas could be relevant to our present financial crisis. He is successful on the first count, drawing from archival research a comprehensive account of a man who built much of Houston’s downtown skyline before he went to Washington in 1932 and made his mark there.
The... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
On November 18, 1978, more than 900 Americans living in a socialist collective in Guyana were murdered or took their own lives. Many poisoned themselves with Flavor Aid laced with cyanide. Their bodies were found scattered around Jonestown, the plantation they’d carved out of the jungle four years earlier at the behest of their leader, Jim Jones. He had promised his followers an egalitarian utopia, but Jonestown defectors had returned to the United States calling the place a prison. Leo Ryan, a Democratic congressman from California, led a small entourage to Guyana to investigate. When Jonestown gunmen killed Ryan and several others, Jones ordered aides to roll out stockpiles of poison; he and his followers would find peace in death before the authorities arrived.
Americans have been darkly fascinated with the event ever since—it’s the subject of numerous books and documentary films. Today, we mock blind followers of any stripe by saying they have “drunk the Kool-Aid.” In A Thousand Lives, journalist Julia Scheeres attempts to correct that unsympathetic characterization of the Jonestown faithful. She knows evangelism’s destructive side intimately—in her 2005 memoir, Jesus Land, she described how her zealot parents packed her and an adopted brother off to a brutal Christian reeducation camp in the Dominican Republic.
Scheeres brings her special understanding to bear on the lives of five Jonestown residents,... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
In 2006, as my family and I rode from the Shanghai airport toward the city’s downtown, our young guide proudly pointed out the multitude of luminous skyscrapers—dazzling in their shapes, jeweled colors, and sheer height—soaring into the night sky. For millennia, men and nations have striven to build the tallest edifices—from Egypt’s pyramids (the tallest originally reached 481 feet) to America’s art deco Chrysler Building (1,046 feet) to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (2,717 feet)—as monuments to their advancing technology and supremacy. Shanghai’s 60-some-odd skyscrapers proclaim China’s status as a modern international powerhouse.
Today, in the entire world there are just over 500 skyscrapers (defined as buildings more than 600 feet tall). Hong Kong is the globe’s “tallest” metropolis; the combined height of its skyscrapers is triple that of New York City’s. In her illustrated guide The Heights, Kate Ascher, a real estate and development consultant and the author of The Works: Anatomy of a City (2005), details the history, design, and upkeep of these man-made marvels.
In the late 1880s, architects and builders in Chicago and New York City invented this ambitious architectural form, creating “cathedrals of commerce” to address the need for office space in congested downtowns where real estate prices were at a premium. The skyscraper’s ever greater heights were... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
The assurance in Ecclesiastes was mere wishful thinking: “There is no new thing under the sun.” Rather, like the Gospel’s poor, the new we have always with us. And thank goodness for that, Winifred Gallagher would argue, for without the challenge of the new and our capacity for neophilia, we’d be nowhere. Literally. Had our African ancestors tens of thousands of years ago not been able to adapt to environmental disruption, the entire history of the race might have been inscribed on a large rock.
So there’s a fundamental evolutionary purpose to neophilia, says Gallagher. Just as the race developed early on in response to a changing world, it has had to keep adapting to survive and flourish. The trick is to know which novelty to embrace because it’s genuinely useful, and which to consign to a dust heap of wan or dangerous diversions.
Gallagher provides an engaging, if somewhat repetitive and diffuse, account of humanity’s need for the new. Neophilia “is both a state, or transient psychobiological condition, and an abiding trait,” and we must understand its several dimensions if we’re to harness a 21st-century aptitude for it. “For better and worse,” she notes, “the United States is history’s most neophilic culture.” Some of us resist change, some embrace it eagerly, and most regard it from a middle distance, receptive but wary, or, if you will, wary but receptive.
In... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
A Man of Conscience
When historian John M. Barry set out to write a book examining the role of religion in modern American public life, his exploration took him instead back to the settling of New England and the unsettling figure of Roger Williams, the first colonist to cultivate the freedom of thought we regard as our birthright. Williams proposed a radical understanding of the relationship between the civic and the spiritual—what is owed to Caesar and what to God. Advocating liberty of conscience, he built a wall between the wilderness of the world and the garden of faith that has shaped our political discourse for the last 400 years.
Williams was born in England around 1603, the son of a shopkeeper in the burgeoning middle class. When he was hired as a teenager to take shorthand for Sir Edward Coke, the leading jurist of the age, he had the chance to witness, in the Star Chamber and Privy Council, battles over the issue of royal prerogative that laid the groundwork for civil war. He studied the foibles of all sorts of men, beginning with the monarch, and the perils of absolute power. The rivalry between Coke and his nemesis, Sir Francis Bacon, was likewise instructive. Barry argues that Williams adopted Coke’s reverence for the law and Bacon’s respect for empirical evidence, an uncommon mixture of intellectual traits that distinguished him from his countrymen—and launched him on a collision course with the authorities in England and America.... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Rome has had an influence like that of no other city. Its 2,500 years of unbroken history make Paris and London seem like recent arrivals. In Rome, Robert Hughes gives a thorough account of the Eternal City’s history and its influence on two millennia’s worth of artists, architects, and writers. A former art critic for Time and the author of books on subjects as diverse as Barcelona, Australia, and modern art, Hughes was first awed by Bernini’s fountains at the Piazza Navona a half-century ago. He sees traces of Rome just about everywhere, from the works of Goethe to Manhattan’s original Pennsylvania Station.
The ancient Rome of our imagination—and as conjured by the sculptors and painters Rome has attracted for millennia—is a pristine marble sculpture garden populated by orators in clean togas. The reality was more like “Calcutta-on-the-Mediterranean,” Hughes writes, “crowded, chaotic, and filthy.” Flimsy apartment buildings lined streets strewn with human and animal excrement, garbage, and the occasional corpse. Residents commonly hurled full chamber pots out the window, braining anyone unlucky enough to be passing below.
Yet rising among the slums were astounding feats of engineering that still inspire, including the Coliseum, the Pantheon, and the monuments of the Forum. Others, just as spectacular, are lost: The Circus Maximus, now buried under modern Rome, had seats for 250,000 spectators,... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Then She Came to the End
More than 30 years ago, Joan Didion channeled the dark heart of the American zeitgeist in her dazzling, kaleidoscopic essay “The White Album,” a chronicle of the collective cultural breakdowns of the late 1960s that became an instant classic. It included a portrait of one of the Manson murderers, an account of an evening with Doors singer Jim Morrison, and the story of Black Panther Party cofounder Huey Newton, bleeding from a gunshot wound as he stood in a hospital lobby, being told he could not see a doctor until he produced his insurance card. The essay consists of a series of flash-cuts among these scenes. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Didion wrote. What she meant was that, without realizing it, we human beings are constantly simplifying, clarifying, and ordering what is happening around us—or trying to.
Didion articulates the fragility of meaning as well as any writer alive. In her work—more than 40 years’ worth of essays, criticism, and fiction—she not only attempts to tell stories, parse evidence, and present the truth of experience (all these are the basic job descriptions of a writer), but to call attention, all the while, to how stories are made, to the variety of ends to which evidence can be turned, and to the complexity of “truth” itself. Her subjects have ranged from an actress in a hospital after a nervous breakdown (in her 1970 novel Play It as It Lays)... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
The history of Vatican City stretches back to the first century ad, and it is a story filled with more heroes and villains, saints and sinners, high-minded visionaries and lowbrow crooks, than Hollywood’s morgue of B-movie scripts. Everyone who has done research in the exquisite Vatican Library comes away with a few experiences that can enthrall any dinner party. When, in 1991, I was researching the life of Galileo, I was escorted by a bloodless German priest, the head of the Vatican Archives, through the narrow corridors of the stacks, up serpentine staircases, past multiple locked doors and glass cases filled with the golden gifts of kings to popes over the centuries, into an inner sanctum. There, I would be shown the transcript of the Inquisition’s four withering interrogations of Galileo. The priest removed a strap lock across a steel cabinet and reverently opened a middle drawer, reaching for the leather-bound record. Next to it was another volume.
“What’s the other book?” I asked.
“Oh, those are the letters between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn,” he answered.
Like me, Vanity Fair editor Cullen Murphy is a member of the Vatican Archives fraternity. In Are We Rome? (2007), he plumbed the history of the ancient empire for parallels to modern America. His provocative new book, God’s Jury, examines the Catholic Inquisition for insight into our own time.
Early in God’s Jury, Murphy introduces himself as a Catholic and an... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
New Life for Old Cities
Not long ago I caught sight of a bumper sticker that read “86-64” affixed to a bicycle parked outside Harvest, a popular new locavore restaurant in Louisville’s burgeoning arts district. One of Harvest’s founding partners is a Kentucky farmer and leader in the urban agriculture movement that is taking hold in this riverfront municipality of nearly 600,000 residents. The sticker referred to a controversial grassroots initiative to tear down an elevated section of Interstate 64 that separates the city from the Ohio River and replace it with a tree-lined boulevard and an expansion of Waterfront Park. It struck me that here was yet more proof that Louisville, an aging midsize industrial city, is undergoing a transformation.
Louisville isn’t alone. Across America, small and midsize cities, particularly those that traditionally have relied on manufacturing, are struggling to forge new identities in a globalized world gripped by recession. Many are seeking to move toward a “green economy” that reduces reliance on fossil fuels and uses resources efficiently. In Small, Gritty, and Green, journalist and historian Catherine Tumber proposes that the undervalued assets of such cities—including their proximity to agricultural lands, skilled manufacturing work forces, and greater flexibility compared to their larger counterparts—poise them to capitalize on the green economy trend.
Tumber traveled the Midwest and the Northeast to... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Fifty years after he ended his life, Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) resides in the American consciousness mostly in caricature. The brilliant war journalist and writer of spare, evocative fiction has been overtaken by the macho, absinthe-swilling bohemian, the writer’s life having become more important than the writer’s writing.
There is, of course, something to these cartoonish portrayals. In The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 1, 1907–1922, the first of a slated dozen or so volumes of his complete, unexpurgated correspondence, the future Nobelist recounts, often in tedious detail, his love of fishing, his heroics on the Italian front, and his burgeoning friendships with expatriate American writers Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. Unlike previous collections of Hemingway’s letters, this one leaves nothing on the cutting room floor. (The volume begins with a note from an eight-year-old Hemingway to his father.)
Much of the material in this collection, meticulously edited by Hemingway scholars Sandra Spanier and Robert W. Trogdon, will be of interest only to academics and obsessives. The earliest material is a slog: anodyne correspondence with family members, quotidian letters about school life, an exhaustively detailed expense report to his employers at The Toronto Star.
But the multiple accounts of his wounding in World War I—boastful, repetitive, and sometimes stingy with the truth—are fascinating, offering a glimpse of... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Until the 19th century, doctors mostly ignored the mysterious adrenal glands.
CIA director William Egan Colby came clean to Congress about scandals in the agency.
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Small acts of insubordination can add up to a lot.
Intimate friendships and relationships are the key to a happy--and healthy--life.
America’s top soothsayer gets philosophical about the perils of prediction.