Sydney M. Williams
Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selective Readings
July 5, 2017
“The American Spirit”
“History…is human. It is about people, and they speak across the years.”
The American Spirit
“Washington,” McCullough tells us in a speech at Ohio University, “…regretted all his life that he never had the advantage of a formal education.” But he understood its importance. He once wrote: “knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.” David McCullough exudes that sentiment.
Mr. McCullough, who has no advanced degrees in history and has never been employed as a professor – he has a bachelor’s in English literature from Yale – is rightly considered one of our foremost historians. He is the author of ten books, ranging from “The Johnstown Flood” to “The Wright Brothers.” He has written on John Adams, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman and the Panama Canal.
“The American Spirit” comprises speeches given over twenty-seven years. The first is to a joint session of Congress, titled “Simon Willard’s Clock.” The last, in 2016, again in Washington, D.C., this time at the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, and titled “A Building Like No Other,” is a discussion of the Capitol building. In between are thirteen addresses to colleges, universities and other groups.
Mr. McCullough takes an unvarnished look at our past, not through rose-colored glasses or via a white-washed version to meet today’s standards, but history as it was. While the emphasis is deservedly on the honor and glory of people and the nation, he does not shy from shame.
While there is no over-riding theme, his speeches celebrate the men and women and the events in which they were involved, all of which make up our common history. He reminds students at Ohio University in 2004 that history is the study of people living in what was their present: “No one lived in the past, only the present.” Lincoln knew his Emancipation Proclamation was the right thing to do, but it is only us, a hundred and fifty years later, who can see the fruits of his wisdom and efforts. “Let us not look down on anyone from the past,” he told students at Dickenson, “for not having the benefit of what we know.” He has a rare ability to link historical figures. For example, in a speech at Lafayette College commemorating the 250th birthday of the Marquis de Lafayette, he segues from Lafayette to Cole Porter, and John Singer Sargent to Thomas Jefferson. Paris is the common denominator.
As much as anything, he emphasizes education, reading, and on why me must continue to learn. “Make the love of learning central to your life,” he tells students at Boston College. “What a difference it can mean.” In a gesture that particularly appeals to me, Mr. McCullough dedicates this book to his nineteen grandchildren, a loving legacy to those lucky children who carry within them the genes of a man who loves learning and who is still, after all these years, awed by the landscape that is our past.
“The innocent ones always understand more than you think.”
Chapter 27, page 311
A captivating aspect of Beatriz’s novels – reminiscent of Anthony Trollope – is how a minor character in one novel reappears in a major (or a minor) role in another. Virginia Fortescue Fitzwilliam had a minor role as the older sister of Sophie in A Certain Age; she returns in this novel as its heroine. Geneva (Gin) Kelly, a central character in The Wicked City, appears in a veiled scene at the end of Cocoa Beach.
Cocoa Beach, Beatriz’s eighth novel, is a story of romance, family, mystery, war (the First World War), murder, prohibition and rum-running. We follow Virginia, who left New York City in 1917 because of an oppressive father about whom she had doubts, to drive ambulances in France. There she meets Captain Simon Fitzwilliam, a surgeon in the British army, whom she marries in 1919 and with whom she has a baby. She leaves her husband for reasons readers will learn. Three years later, we meet her again in Cocoa Beach, Florida where she has gone, with her three-year-old daughter, as apparent heir to her estranged husband’s businesses. He appears to have died in what might not have been an accident. Death plays a role in the book, beyond the destruction she saw in France. Her mother, for example, had been murdered ten years earlier. “I came to understand that we living people exist in this physical realm, and the departed spirits belong solely to the eternal one.”
Beatriz brings alive the time-periods of which she writes – in this case, battle fields in France; England and France, victorious but exhausted by four years of war; and Florida, energetic and developing, and rife with rum-runners. She writes of how the modern era was born from the ashes of that world war, and she incorporates historical figures, like Carl Fisher, manufacturer of the acetylene headlight and developer of Miami Beach.
The novel twists and turns toward its surprising conclusion, leading all but the most astute readers astray, as we follow Virginia on her tortuous path toward answers. On the way, she learns hard truths: “You can do anything if you don’t care how other people feel.” Not knowing who or what to believe, she becomes self-reliant: “That I had only myself to rely on, in this unknown world that lay before me.” “We do what we must to survive in this harsh and bitter universe.” The story is told in the first person and through a series of letters to Virginia from Simon.
Cocoa Beach tells of the struggle between good and evil, lies and truth, that things are not always what they seem. It is an entertaining and informative read.