- Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, by William Taubman
- A Sum of Destructions: Picasso's Cultures and The Creation of Cubism, by Natasha Staller
In his characteristically blunt and earthy style, Nikita Khrushchev explained to a colleague his strategy for sneaking missiles into Cuba with the following anecdote: a poor Russian peasant took his smelly goat into his hut to shelter for the winter, but soon the peasant grew accustomed to the odor and took no further notice of it. The American president Kennedy, too, in Khrushchev’s words, would “learn to accept the smell of the missiles.” The tale of how Khrushchev’s miscalculations brought the United States and Russia to the brink of war over Cuba in 1962 is just one of the fascinating episodes in William Taubman’s magisterial biography of the former Soviet leader. A distinguished professor of political science at Amherst and author of several books on Russian politics, Taubman has written an intriguing account of a fascinating individual while also telling the story of his era.
Americans perhaps recall Khrushchev best for his famous outburst at the United Nations, in which he banged his shoe on the table. In his relations with the West, as well as at home, Khrushchev often presented an image both menacing and ludicrous. Once in power, he tended to bully those around him, as he had once been bullied by Stalin. Khrushchev’s tirades displayed his rank but also frequently revealed his shallow knowledge of science, culture, foreign affairs and so forth. An object of scorn and dislike for many, Khrushchev nonetheless impressed his opponents with his sharp instincts, prodigious memory and dramatic abilities. This seemingly common, even crude, man had after all not only survived but advanced under Stalin and had outmaneuvered other contenders for the Soviet throne.
To explain Khrushchev’s self-destructive tendencies and “manic” states, William Taubman uses psychological analysis and historical methods. He traces the roots of the Soviet dictator’s twinned ambition and self-doubt to his youth, spent under his mother’s adoring eye in a family that was mired in rural poverty. Taubman then reveals that Khrushchev’s garrulous nature and domineering style in later years masked the leader’s genuine insecurities and even remorse over some of the costs of his advancement.
In chronicling Khrushchev’s tumultuous career, Taubman paints a richly detailed portrait of the leader’s many lives: peasant boy, upwardly mobile metalworker, political activist, erstwhile student, energetic administrator, Stalinist satrap, supreme leader and ultimately morose but defiant pensioner and memoirist. Taubman explores Khrushchev’s motivations and survival strategies through each phase of his life. Especially fascinating are the accounts of how Khrushchev managed to stay in favor with Stalin over many decades of close association and dared to denounce him in 1956.
Readers of Khrushchev: A Man and His Era will, as the title promises, find not only a biography of an important statesman but also a history of the formative years of the Soviet superpower. As Taubman explains, “Taken in its entirety, his life holds a mirror to the Soviet age as a whole.” Indeed, the years of Khrushchev’s maturity span revolution, civil war, industrialization, Stalin’s purges, the German invasion and Soviet victory in World War II, as well as the reconstruction of the Soviet economy and the most tense years of the Cold War that followed. His book thereby educates us on two levels.
As an Amherst student in the late 1980s, I had the pleasure of participating in a special seminar on Khrushchev taught by Professor Taubman. Each student had the task of tackling one area of Khrushchev’s activity, ranging from his policy toward Germany to his relations with Soviet artists and writers. At the time it seemed impossible that any one person could ever become an expert on the full spectrum of Khrushchev’s affairs. But I’m happy to report that Bill Taubman has done so in admirable fashion, keeping up with an increasing deluge of new revelations from Soviet archives and possibilities for further travel and research. His book has been especially enriched by long interviews with Khrushchev’s family members and associates.
William Taubman’s decades of scholarship have allowed him to create a work that is rich in detail but also full of larger themes. Those interested in Russian and American history alike will find this a compelling book that ultimately makes a powerful and convincing case for understanding Nikita Khrushchev as a flawed but very human hero of his times.
— Kathleen E. Smith ’87
Adjunct Professor of Government, Georgetown University
Picasso, Woman (era of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”) (detail), 1907
A Sum of Destructions: Picasso's Cultures and The Creation of Cubism. By Natasha Staller, Associate Professor of Fine Arts. New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2001. 438 pp. $50 hardcover.
The consensus among the majority of present-day critics and art historians is that Pablo Picasso was the most important and influential artist of the 20th century. His invention of Cubism in 1907-08 and of collage, construction and assemblage in 1912 have irrevocably changed the nature of painting and sculpture, and, some would argue, even redefined the very nature of art itself. For any modern artist, ignoring the implications of Picasso’s work is near impossible. From the French Cubists and Italian Futurists to the German Expressionists, English Vorticists, Dutch Neo-Plasticists and Russian Constructivists, few modern European artists managed to escape the force and magnetic pull of Picasso’s influence.
Not surprisingly, his artistic production has generated a vast literature and numerous, sometimes competing, accounts and interpretations. In view of the considerable critical attention Picasso’s work has received, Natasha Staller’s lavishly illustrated and brilliantly researched new book, A Sum of Destructions: Picasso’s Cultures & The Creation of Cubism,also achieves something near impossible by making a substantial and original contribution to the current state of knowledge on Picasso. In the past, for example, it has proved overly tempting to see Picasso as a peerless prodigy, an immensely gifted child whose work, however, would probably have amounted to very little had he stayed in the provincial backwater of Málaga, the small Spanish town in which he was born. Even the more cosmopolitan centers of Barcelona and Madrid would have proved too artistically pedestrian and culturally unsophisticated to provide the necessary inspiration appropriate to his ambitions and volcanic talent. If one wanted to be a serious artist in the 19th century, after all, especially a serious artist in the modern vein, there was nowhere else to go but Paris. It was there, in the cauldron of advanced modernity, that Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Symbolism where born and where the careers of Manet, Monet, Gauguin, Seurat, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Moreau and Redon were launched. It was only there, in other words, that Picasso could have realized his full potential.
It was, of course, impossible to sideline the depth of Picasso’s Spanishness completely. His admiration for El Greco, Velásquez and Goya was undeniable, as was his lifelong fascination with typically Spanish themes, such as the bullfight. For all its importance, however, Picasso’s Spanish heritage was generally considered crucial to his iconography but largely tangential to his most original formal inventions and technical contributions. It was the critical influence of African masks and of Paul Cézanne, so the story goes, that catalyzed the invention of Cubism, which, in turn, instigated the subsequent revolutions of collage and construction. Without those key influences (to which Picasso was exposed in Paris, the epicenter of the modern movement), his position in art history would have proved far different (read far less significant).
Although it is impossible to gainsay the force of this conventional account, and Staller is not out to dismantle it completely, her book nonetheless uncovers a mass of previously overlooked connections between Picasso’s most daring innovations and his early, formative experiences in Spain. Staller’s Picasso is an artist whose whole career is largely unintelligible without a thorough investigation of the complex cultures and subcultures from which he emerged. This is ironic, as Staller herself acknowledges, because the members of these cultures would, from the other side, have found Picasso’s own radical modernism unintelligible.
Yet it is difficult to argue with either the breadth or the poignancy of the evidence Staller adduces. The idea of fragmenting forms, for example, so crucial to the syntax of Cubism, was an everyday aspect of the way the young Picasso first experienced religion, either through the intermediary of relics, which often survived in fragmentary form, or in the way religious sculptures and artifacts broke through wear and tear or vandalism. The activity of cutting and pasting indispensable to collage—a medium revolutionary in its violation of the oil-on-canvas medium and in its incorporation of everyday, nonartistic materials—can also be traced back to games of cutting and pasting Picasso and his friends played in childhood. Picasso’s later tendencies to generate heterogeneous intermixtures of images, lettering and musical notes within the same visual field have the same roots. Even the artist’s frequent predilection for visual puns and metamorphosis, such as allowing the same shape to suggest multiple objects simultaneously, was also anticipated in childhood toys and games played by the young Picasso. It is very much in his lesser-known early drawings, which Staller amply illustrates, that the extent of the impact of these childhood games on Picasso is most dramatically revealed. And even if drawing is a more experimental medium than painting, Picasso’s early sketches, while exploiting devices used in drawing ever since the Renaissance, also bespeak an unprecedented freedom. This same freedom, combined with the multiple sources he was absorbing from popular culture, was slowly laying the groundwork, as Staller persuasively demonstrates, for many of his key innovations.
But the story does not end here. Picasso’s later proclivity for incorporating foreign materials and to mix painted passages with popular advertisements also owe their impetus to childhood games and the tradition of album making. Equally informative is Staller’s discussion of Barros, popular terracotta sculptures of musicians or street urchins widely disseminated in Picasso’s native Andalusia. Particular to Barros was a heterogeneous mixture of media—e.g., rope, upholstery, string, wire—the very same kind of radical mixture of materials that Picasso would so successfully employ in his later sculptures. Picasso’s life-long fascination with popular culture has, of course, been widely documented before. But it has not been traced to Picasso’s formative years with the scholarly diligence Staller displays in Sum of Destructions. If Picasso’s appreciation for newspapers and advertisements is obvious from their literal introduction in his own work, what is less obvious is how this practice also can be traced back to Picasso’s childhood drawings. In fact, as an adolescent, he drew his own newspaper by hand, complete with date, price, written columns and advertisements.
Even Picasso’s fateful encounter with African masks at the Trocadéro in 1907 (the ostensible catalyst for Cubism), and Picasso’s incorporation of newspaper clippings in later collages referencing the Balkan war between the Turks and their Serb and Greek opponents, can be seen against Picasso’s having been raised in a Spanish culture which had itself been a complex site of contention between Europe and Africa, Christianity and Islam.
By immersing Picasso in the wide range of cultures and subcultures from which much of his art originally sprung, Staller gives the reader the inevitable impression that the myths of the artist as “unstoppable child prodigy” or as “volcanic artistic genius” are in dire need of revision. Staller’s account, of course, is subtle and highly nuanced. She is careful to avoid reducing Picasso’s contributions to the history of art to the simple repackaging of popular sources from which he borrowed. She is a scholar sensitive enough to discern the differences and transformations, not to mention the daring necessary to transmute mundane aspects of popular culture into the complex, hermetic and metaphysical artistic language that is cubism. But the Picasso that emerges from Staller’s book looks more like a great synthesizer than a great inventor; perhaps this is a more intelligent way of describing him and some of the other key figures of 20th-century art (e.g., Matisse, Duchamp, Pollock and Warhol). Many of these artists also initiated creative revolutions by looking to objects or practices that their own culture had hitherto refused to acknowledge as “art” (rugs and wallpaper in the case of Matisse, ordinary found objects in the case of Duchamp, Indian sand painting in the case of Pollock and images created by the mass media in the case of Warhol). The cross-fertilization that resulted from integrating “high” art and popular culture, and the jolt that stemmed from exhibiting what looked like “non-art” objects in artistic contexts, underlies not only the work of Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp and others, but much of the most productive innovations of 20th-century art. To place Picasso in the same tradition does not detract from the originality and magnitude of his achievement in any way; it simply allows, as does Staller’s excellent book, the nature of that achievement to emerge in sharper relief.
— Claude Cernuschi
Claude Cernuschi is the assistant chairperson of the
fine arts department at Boston College. He has
written several books about 20th-century art.
Photo: Fondation Beyeler, Riechen/Basel
The Culture Concept: Writing and Difference in the Age of Realism.By Michael A. Elliott ’92. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. 336 pp. $21.95 paperback.
Elliott, an assistant professor of English at Emory University, traces the history of the use of the word “culture” to describe the differences in ways of life between groups of people. He explains that the current definition came into focus during turn-of-the-century America, when American literary realism and scientific ethnography—two distinct fields that record group-based differences—intersected. The Culture Concept examines folktales, dialect literature, local-color sketches and ethnographies from the late 19th century, including several standout anthropological works, to attempt to find a less chauvinistic way to view human differences. The result provides an understanding of how the fields of American literary realism and scientific ethnography connected, and questions the usefulness of the current definition of culture.
Reclaiming Public Housing: A Half Century of Struggle in Three Public Neighborhoods. By Lawrence J. Vale ’81. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. 468 pp. $39.95 hardcover.
The author carries his readers through the rise, fall and redevelopment of three Boston public-housing projects in the 1980s and 1990s. Vale, professor of urban design and planning and head of the department of urban studies and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explores how battles over race and poverty played out differently in each of the cases, with drastically different results. Why, he asks, was one of the three efforts a rousing success, one only mediocre and one a failure? Reclaiming Public Housing examines each of the cases and questions the widespread current of thought that advises that all large public housing projects be demolished and rebuilt as mixed-income neighborhoods.
Dead Reckoning: Great Adventure Writing from the Golden Age of Exploration, 1800-1900. Helen Whybrow ’90, ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003. 566 pp. $29.95 hardcover.
With Dead Reckoning, a new anthology from Outside magazine, Whybrow brings together a collection of more than 30 19th-century adventure stories. The anthology’s pieces span the globe, and illuminate the pivotal time in world history when Western knowledge of the earth’s geography, peoples and environments increased dramatically. Whybrow provides an introduction to each selection, explaining the socio-historical background and literary context of each piece. The collection offers narratives from well-known figures, including Meriwether Lewis, Charles Darwin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau and Sir Richard Francis Burton. In addition, it includes selections from lesser-known figures, including Alfred Russel Wallace—who developed a theory of evolution by natural selection contemporaneously with but independently of Charles Darwin—and women who, until recently, were unable to take credit for their seemingly masculine accomplishments.
Mulatto America: At the Crossroads of Black and White Culture: A Social History. By Stephan Talty ’86. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. 288 pp. $24.95 hardcover.
In his book, Talty, a noted writer for The New York Times Magazine, Spin and Vibe, explores the way in which black and white culture have interacted in America. Mulatto America dissects many historical examples of people who crossed the cultural color line, for example W.E.B. Du Bois, Dorothy Dandridge, Elvis Presley and Eminem. Talty’s book covers a wide range of phenomena, from interracial lovers of the slavery era to the pillars of the modern hip-hop generation, and works to demonstrate how black and white cultures have mixed to form today’s American culture.
Drug Interactions Casebook: The Cytochrome P450 System and Beyond. By Neil Sandson ’87. Arlington, Va.: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2003. 288 pp. $33 paperback.
In this book, which is intended for patients as well as doctors, Sandson, the director of education and residency at Sheppard Pratt Health System in Maryland, uses actual case histories, including narrations from patients, to illustrate all the known interactions of the most frequently used psychiatric medications. The interactions include not only those of psychiatric drugs with each other, but also interactions of those drugs used in other branches of medicine. Sorting through all those permutations was, says Sandson, “mind-numbingly complex.” Thoroughly indexed and referenced, the book also includes a self-evaluation test, so readers can be sure that their own drug regimen is safe.
In Revere, in Those Days. By Roland Merullo, Visiting Lecturer. New York: Shaye Areheart Books, 2002. 302 pp. $22 hardcover.
This novel, Merullo’s fourth, tells the story of Anthony Benedetto, a young Italian-American who is orphaned and raised by his extended family in Revere, Mass., during the 1950s. Through character studies of Anthony’s relatives and the story of Anthony’s own coming of age, the book provides a glimpse into a time and place now past. By contrasting the old-world values of Anthony’s family with the lure of American culture, the book also explores the role that heritage plays in shaping one’s future.
Writing Revolution: Aesthetics and Politics in Hawthorne, Whitman, and Thoreau. By Peter Bellis ’77. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 2003. 221 pp. $39.95 hardcover.
In recent years, literary studies have tended to treat historical texts either as free-standing entities without any cultural context or as nothing but cultural expressions, with no independent life of their own. Peter Bellis, associate professor of English at the University of Miami, takes the middle ground, showing the ways in which literature can engage with, rather than escape from or obscure, social and political issues. Bellis argues that a number of 19th-century American writers, including Hawthorne, Thoreau and Whitman, saw their texts as spaces where alternative social and cultural possibilities could be suggested and explored. He shows how these authors, all writing at the same time, used their books to respond in novel ways to the fundamental issues of the day: American identity after the Revolution, slavery and growing industrialization.
Rehabilitation of Stroke. By Paul Kaplan ’62, Rene Cailliet and Candia Kaplan. Burlington, Mass.: Butterworth Heinemann, 2003. 180 pp. $49.95 paperback.
Kaplan’s book is a reference work for physicians with patients who have experienced a stroke. It covers the many varieties and consequences of stroke and helps doctors create an effective and unique rehabilitation program for each of their patients. The first section of the book discusses clinical presentation and the various ways in which stroke occurs. The second section involves the effects of the stroke on the patient, including various function deficits, medical complications and psychological treatment. The final section is devoted to treatment concerns, including pain management and patients with hidden disabilities.
Dangerous Behavior. By Walter Marks ’55. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2002. 275 pp. $25 hardcover.
Walter Marks’ gritty first novel is the story of a young psychiatrist, David Rothberg, who is assigned to a New York prison to analyze the mental state of a notorious killer facing possible parole. The killer is widely believed by the public and those at the prison to be evil incarnate. But as Rothberg conducts his examination, he becomes increasingly unsure of the killer’s guilt and increasingly suspicious of the motives of the various guards, priests and witnesses who condemn him. The prisoner himself says he has no memory of the crime, and his girlfriend swears that she can prove his innocence. However, their motivation, too, is suspect. The untested Rothberg has to sort out the truth from among these tangled lines, and determine whether this possible killer should go free.
Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain: Reading Encounters Between Black and Red, 1922-1963. By Kate Baldwin ’88. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002. 346 pp. $19.95 paperback.
From the 1920s to the 1960s, the African-American writers W.E.B. Du Bois, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson each traveled extensively in the Soviet Union, and each reflected on Communism and Soviet life in works that have been largely unavailable, overlooked or understudied. Kate Baldwin, assistant professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, takes up these writings, as well a large amount of material from Soviet sources, to consider how these writers influenced and were influenced by both Soviet and American culture. She shows how these encounters with the U.S.S.R. helped these writers rethink the exclusionary practices in the United States and how they were instrumental in moving the writers toward a new black internationalism.
Valley of Roses. By Ben Stoltzfus ’49. Victoria, British Columbia: Trafford Publishing, 2003. 151 pp. $14.95 paperback.
Valley of Roses is a fictional memoir of an American, Aaron, who grew up during the German occupation of Bulgaria during World War II and lived through the Soviet liberation and Communist takeover of the country, as well as the long American presence in the Balkans. It is also a love story about Aaron and Zhivka, whose relationship symbolizes that of America and Bulgaria. Ultimately, the novel is about faith, politics, art and survival.
— Compiled by Rebecca Binder ’02
For this issue, we asked William Pritchard, the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English and a regular reviewer for The New York Times and other publications, to tell us what he’s been reading lately.
I divide my reading life into three parts, although the lines separating them are shifting, varying. There is the reading I do for two courses I’m teaching, Shakespeare and Modern Poets. There is reading for the specifically assigned tasks of a reviewer: a reissue of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy; a one-volume edition of George Orwell’s essays; Robert Lowell’s forthcoming Collected Poems. And in the interstices of reading for courses and for writing reviews and essays, there is reading for the hell of it, for pure pleasure—even if it doesn’t always turn out that way.
I spent most of January Interterm with Dreiser’s 931-page monster: Published in 1925, the year of shorter, more elegant novels like The Great Gatsby and Cather’s The Professor’s House, An American Tragedy is a reader-killer. I got through it once years ago and wouldn’t have essayed it again except on commission. Whether or not, ultimately, it touches the heart, it continues to live for its depiction of the lobby of a Kansas City hotel, or the shirt factory in upstate New York where Clyde Griffiths, the hero, works, or the Adirondack lake where Clyde disposes of his pregnant girlfriend. I’ll never read An American Tragedy again but am glad I just did so.
This is George Orwell’s centenary, and along with a lively book in defense of him by Christopher Hitchens (Why Orwell Matters), the reconstituted Everyman’s Library has published his Essays in which the genius of his work as a critic of politics, culture and literature is on display. Even those who admire Orwell’s astuteness as topical essayist (“Politics and the English Language,” “Why I Write”) will be amazed at the subtlety and range of his criticism of English writers, from Milton to Evelyn Waugh. And his regular accounts of life in London during World War II shouldn’t be missed. At a selling price of $35, these 1,367 pages are a steal.
Over the past few decades Amherst College has been fortunate to attract some excellent poets and novelists to pass along their experience in writing courses. Robert Stone was here for three years in the 1970s; Alan Lelchuk for two years in the ’80s; at present Sue Miller is offering a course in advanced fiction writing. Stone and Lelchuk have brought out impressive new novels: Stone’s A Bay of Souls is alive with the usual edgy, disturbing events that haunt his pages and make for a dark tale not without its sardonic touches. In Lelchuk’s Ziff: A Life? Danny Levitan decides to restart his sagging literary fortunes as a novelist by becoming a biographer (to the tune of a six-figure advance) of the fictitious novelist Arthur Ziff, whose name happens to have the same number of letters and syllables as a real one named Philip Roth. The embroilments, often of a comic, even farcical nature, make for an unillusioned look at America’s literary scene in its less-than-heroic aspects. Finally, Sue Miller, who has produced a number of memorable novels about the lives of women, gives us in The Story of My Father a moving account of her father’s years as an Alzheimer’s sufferer. Painful as such a story is certain to be, Miller’s temperamental irony and sense of the risky task she’s undertaken in writing about her father make her account both enlivening and sane.
The American poetry scene contains lots of forgettable slim volumes but has been immeasurably energized and lightened up over the past few years by the work of America’s current laureate, Billy Collins. His new volume, Nine Horses, shows no sign that his imagination has been bureaucratized into merely writing Another Collins Poem. The same crisp, surprising, original takes on life are there to make you smile, even when the poem is titled “Obituaries” and begins with a neat bow to Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” (“These are no pages for the young,/ who are better off in one another’s arms”) then proceeds to explain why the rest of us aged turn to those pages first.
Finally, for the hell of it and for the aged, don’t miss Inherited Risk: Errol and Sean Flynn in Hollywood and Vietnam, by Jeffrey Meyers. Skip the part about son Sean, but follow carefully the sexual exploits of father Errol, who also fathered the immortal phrase “in like Flynn.”