Of the actress Charlotte Cushman, Louisa May Alcott wrote in her diary, “Saw Charlotte Cushman and had a stage-struck fit”; she based a character on Cushman in her novel “Jo’s Boys.” When Nathaniel Hawthorne found out Cushman was staying at the same hotel, he wrote home to tell his wife about it. She made an impression on Walt Whitman and on Abraham Lincoln. “Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity” (Avid Reader), a lively, illuminating new biography by Tana Wojczuk, out this week, tells the story of Cushman, born in Boston in 1816, and her ascent to stage stardom in the 19th century. Cushman was a charismatic boundary-pusher, lived openly in relationships with women, surrounded herself with “an entourage of female friends, ambitious, unorthodox artists like herself who longed for more freedom than they could find in America or in England.” Wojczuk reveals the force and vitality of this woman, on the stage and off. “Before Charlotte, America had no celebrities; now they manufacture them like blue jeans.”
A writer redisovered
The Black American novelist William Melvin Kelley published his first novel, “A Different Drummer,” at age 24, two years after he graduated from Harvard, in 1962. Kelley is credited with coining the term woke; a headline for a New York Times op-ed he wrote was “If You’re Woke, You Dig It.” He went on to write four other books, all of which explore race in the United States, knotting together satire, humor, the surreal, the absurd. Last year, Anchor re-released “A Different Drummer,” and late last month they released new editions of “dem,” in which a white man’s wife bears twins, one of whom is Black, and “A Drop of Patience,” about a blind jazz musician’s ascent to fame, his navigation of New York City, music-making, a failed love with a white woman, and the resulting mental collapse it causes. In September, Anchor will release “Dunfords Travels Everywheres” and “Dancers on the Shore.” All the new editions have striking new covers designed by Kelley’s daughter Jessica. The reissuing of these books is a welcome introduction to the important, largely forgotten work of a 20th-century master.
Love & marriage
In Sudbury-based children’s book writer Sarah S. Brannen’s new picture book, her 20th, “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding” (Little Bee), Chloe fears that her favorite uncle getting married means the end of their adventures together, that she’ll lose her kite-flying partner, and her pal at picnics. What Bobby and his soon-to-be-husband show Chloe is that there’s room enough for all kinds of love, and that loving a new person doesn’t mean there’s less room for other love. With warm, richly colored, and expressive illustrations by Lucia Soto, the book, published in partnership with GLAAD, serves as a gentle and welcome celebration of the different shapes love and family can take.
“Notes on a Silencing” by Lacy Crawford (Little, Brown)
“Memorial Drive” by Natasha Trethewey (Ecco)
“Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act” by Nicholson Baker (Penguin)
Pick of the week
Carolyn Burkhart at Savoy Bookshop in Westerly, R.I., recommends “A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube” by Patrick Leigh Fermor (NYRB): “I love this story, and the telling of it! Put on your hiking boots and be transported to the whole of Europe in 1933. Pack your dictionary.”