WAR OF TWO: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Duel That Stunned the Nation
By John Sedgwick
Berkley Books, 455 pp., illustrated, $27.95
It began with a rumor about dinner-party gossip. The duel in which Vice President Aaron Burr killed former Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton on a July morning in 1804 had its roots the previous winter, when Hamilton referred to Burr as a “dangerous’’ man and then, according to a guest at the dinner, went on to call him something “more despicable.” News traveled slowly 200 years ago, but when Burr learned of the slight, he was quick to press Hamilton, ultimately challenging him to a duel; as a gentleman whose honor had been questioned, a friend would say, “he [was] determined to vindicate that honor at such hazard as the nature of the case demands.” In another way, though, what ended in fatal gunfire had begun years earlier, as John Sedgwick writes in “War of Two,” a chronicle of two lives that often intertwined and always mirrored one another.
Sedgwick, one of whose ancestors was a contemporary of both men (and known to them in his position as speaker of the House), ably blends two biographies, setting them against the birth story of a new nation. He sketches with great compassion both the brilliant, self-created Hamilton, an immigrant of illegitimate birth and boundless ambition, and the equally brilliant Burr, an American aristocrat, grief-haunted, private, composed of contradictions. Although Sedgwick writes elegantly and eloquently, readers might wish for a fresher look at these old stories, perhaps paying more attention to the perennially trivial women, or the black slaves silently carrying notes to and fro. The one female character to emerge as a formidable figure in her own right, Burr’s wife, Theodosia, is incorrectly described as having been “born in England,” an error this reviewer noted because her own ancestor was Theodosia’s aunt (both were born in New Jersey). Although its style is undeniable, such lapses in research make it difficult to know how seriously to take the book’s substance.
The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
By Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
Dey Street Books, 227 pp., illustrated, $19.99
A profile of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, written while she was a professor at Columbia Law School (her alma mater, though she began her studies at Harvard Law School), described the way students related to her: “Among themselves, students call her Ruthie, as if she were someone’s Jewish aunt. They are able to feel close to her without knowing her that well.” Four decades on, the diminutive Supreme Court Justice still elicits that kind of response. It’s no wonder, then, that this new book — which expands on a Tumblr created by Knizhnik, then a law student — tells Ginsburg’s story with such obvious affection. What is surprising, however, is how substantive it is.
Along with delivering the standard biography, complete with a raft of charming photos, Carmon and Knizhnik write powerfully about the progression of Ginsburg’s legal career. In particular, they make vivid the development of her trademark arguments — particularly her longstanding belief that cases involving women’s rights, inextricably tied to reproductive freedom, should be tried using standards of equality, not privacy. The book sticks with the conceit that made its source material famous — the absurdity of juxtaposing the tiny, Jewish, grandmotherly Ginsburg with the rotund late rap icon Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G. — each chapter takes its title from one of his songs. And yet it’s not as silly as it seems: In her fierce honesty, resolute realness, and, yes, innate sense of style (those collars!), Ginsburg emerges as a cultural icon worthy of her own fanbase.
WHAT WE’RE FIGHTING FOR NOW IS EACH OTHER:
Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice
By Wen Stephenson
Beacon Press, 239 pp., $24.95
“This is really happening,” Wen Stephenson begins, as he goes on to describe a rise in global temperature that has come sooner than predicted and that everyone from the World Bank to NASA to the International Energy Agency agrees threatens to devastate human life on the planet. Despite the unanimity of the scientific community, Stephenson notes, our social and political response continues to emphasize moderation, cooler heads, gradual change. In this harrowing, compelling call to action, Stephenson argues for radicalism, for a moral and even spiritual awakening similar to what fueled 19th century abolitionism.
Stephenson talks to activists who’ve fought to block the Keystone XL pipeline, community organizers trying to heal post-Katrina New Orleans, preachers, teachers, and students. Their courage challenges the rest of us, as he puts it, “the moderates, the cautious pragmatists — the reasonable, serious, centrist voices — who fail to acknowledge the true scale, urgency, and gravity of the climate catastrophe.” A middle-class husband and father himself, Stephenson is alert to all the reasons not to fight, the risks of job loss or jail. Yet he asks us, as he has asked himself, “What, then, is the alternative?”
Writings From The New Yorker
By Lillian Ross
Scribner, 335 pp., illustrated, $27
A writer for The New Yorker since 1945, Lillian Ross was for years hidden behind the anonymous “we” then used in its “Talk of the Town” features. The tradition “masked the fact that I was a woman,” Ross writes, but it also reflected the institution’s early days: “We indeed created the magazine.” Collected here are 32 pieces she wrote for the magazine, spanning six decades of work. Some compel by their subject matter — who wouldn’t want to read a 1954 profile of the young Julie Andrews, or piece on Charlie Chaplin, years past his prime in 1950? But Ross’s 1960 account of a New York visit by a group of small-town Hoosiers is a celebrity-free tour de force.
In a foreword, the magazine’s editor David Remnick calls Ross “a hell of a reporter.” The pieces collected here make a good case for his assessment. Ross’s open curiosity, ear for language and an eye for detail, along with her willingness to just plain hang around, constitute a kind of master class in what makes a good reporter. Her goal — to write a piece with a beginning, middle, and end, like a “little film” — is fully realized in these satisfying, often fascinating portraits.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at email@example.com.