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Short Takes

Capsule review of three recent titles

THE CANING: The Assault that Drove America to Civil War

By Stephen Puleo

Westholme, 400 pp., $28

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In 1856, when South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks brought his cane down upon the head of Charles Sumner, senator from Massachusetts, he beat Sumner so hard the cane splintered. According to Stephen Puleo, the assault on the Senate floor— and especially the radically different reactions to it in the North and the South — triggered a chain of events leading straight to the Civil War. The country had debated the role of slavery for nearly a century, but the caning heightened already intense disagreements, especially over the status of new states such as Kansas, which was the primary battleground before the war began. After Brooks’s attack, northern newspapers decried its brutality, seeing it as an insult to free speech and indication of southern barbarism, while many in the South applauded. “Hit him again,” editorialized Brooks’s hometown paper.

Puleo tells the story vividly, masterfully distilling its sprawling context. Yet at times he seems curiously tone deaf, repeatedly extolling the virtues of compromise when, of course, slavery is an issue about which compromise is impossible. He’s at his best when chronicling the lives of the two men at the heart of the caning. Infamously prickly and intense, the fiery abolitionist Sumner was, according to a friend, “almost impervious to a joke”; still, his steadfast devotion to principle commands respect. For his part, Brooks had been infuriated by Sumner’s recently delivered speech about the turmoil in “Bleeding Kansas,” in which he had insulted Brooks’s cousin, Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Brooks limped from an earlier duel wound; the code duello (literally rules for duels) was just one part, Puleo writes, of “a code of honor that governed virtually every aspect of a white Southern gentleman’s life.” One country, two civilizations.

BIG RAY

By Michael Kimball

Bloomsbury, 192 pp., $23

“It’s sunny outside and my dad is dead. I’m happy right now and my dad is dead.” This line comes toward the end of Michael Kimball’s distilled, intense new book, an elliptical novel — told in snippets, the longest just two or three paragraphs, the shortest as tiny and potent as a Zen koan. The story begins with the end of Big Ray’s life, and we travel with his son Daniel, the book’s narrator, through layers of memories, visiting Ray’s early failures, his vanity, and rage. Big Ray got his nickname because he was morbidly obese; as his son recalls, “over the course of my lifetime, my father tripled in size.” Growing up poor, he was always hungry.

The narrative moves back and forth in time, drawing closer and closer to the worst of Ray. Daniel recalls waiting up for his father as a young boy, having been promised a goodnight kiss when he got home; now, he realizes, “I think I would have recognized him as a monster.” Fear and revulsion mingle with a kind of helpless love — or at least need — that reveals the terrifying vulnerability of children to even the worst parents. “I hated him, but I wanted him to like me,” Daniel says. “I was ashamed of him, but I wanted him to be proud of me.”

THE NOTORIOUS ELIZABETH TUTTLE: Marriage, Murder, and Madness in the Family of Jonathan Edwards

By Ava Chamberlain

NYU, 251 pp., $27.95

Elizabeth Tuttle possessed “strong will, extreme intellectual vigor,” and other fine qualities she passed on to her descendents, which included her grandson, the noted theologian Jonathan Edwards, and his grandson, Aaron Burr (a certain Boston Globe book reviewer is likely her lateral descendent). She also, regrettably, “evinced an extraordinary deficiency of moral sense,” as seen in her erotic degradation (she bore a child out of wedlock), lack of wifely constancy (her marriage to Edwards’s grandfather ended in divorce), and large number of homicidal relatives (one brother killed a sister, another sister murdered her children). Largely forgotten by history, Elizabeth Tuttle emerged from obscurity during the early 20th century, when the eugenics movement saw her as a perfect example of inherited traits — good and bad.

Not a biography but instead a careful reading of both individual and intellectual history, Ava Chamberlain’s book mines limited evidence to explore one 17th century life (Elizabeth was born in 1645 in New Haven, Conn.). Scholarly and careful, Chamberlain tells a vivid story about how history itself is constructed according to each era’s own desires.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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