Books

in brief

‘Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy,’ ‘The Human Spark,’ ‘Cotton Tenants,’ and ‘The Examined Life’

Junius and Albert’s Adventures in the Confederacy:

A Civil War Odyssey

By Peter Carlson

Public Affairs, 268 pp., illustrated, $26.99

Along with some of their fellow northern reporters covering the Civil War, Junius Browne and Albert Richardson approached their work with self-conscious brio — calling themselves the “Bohemian Brigade,” Browne and Richardson and their colleagues agreed to “suffer all necessary privations without grumbling, laugh at danger, and try to extract as much fun as possible out of the grim business of war.” Of grimness and privation the two found more than their share. While reporting from Vicksburg, Miss., for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune in 1863, Browne and Richardson were captured by Confederate soldiers. Although officially “paroled” as non-combatants, the two found themselves imprisoned in Virginia and North Carolina for nearly two years. After watching some 20 to 30 fellow prisoners die every day in Salisbury Prison, Browne and Richardson escaped and headed for the nearest Union line, just east of Knoxville, Tenn.

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Both reporters left behind troves of correspondence and their own autobiographies; Peter Carlson weaves these and other research into a compelling, truly exciting tale. He finds humor in it, too, especially stories of grave journalistic crimes (entire battle scenes made up by reporters too drunk to witness the scene, for instance). The levity is more than balanced by the genuine menace the Yankees faced down South (in Atlanta, newspaper editorials urged they be lynched) and the deep humanity of those Union sympathizers, black and white, who helped them on their long, cold escape route. Plenty of nonfiction narratives claim to read like novels; this one actually does.

The Human Spark:The Science of Human Development

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By Jerome Kagan

Basic, 333 pp., illustrated, $28.99

Policy makers like to debate when life begins, but perhaps the more important questions are those posed by Jerome Kagan in his new book on development: What makes us human, and when do children become human? Are newborn babies born with what we would call “a self?” Best known for his work exploring the persistence of inborn temperamental differences, Kagan here expands his inquiry into other areas, including the problems inherent in trying to understand something as complex as human nature by looking through as narrow a lens as neuroscience, genetics, or psychological research.

The result is a wide-ranging book that, while sometimes dry, often offers astonishing details amid the research Kagan summarizes, such as the fact that some languages only have two names for color (dark and light), and when a third is added “it is always for red.” Kagan’s explanations of classic child psychological experiments coexist with admonishments not to read too much INTO any theories of child-rearing, because our current understanding of human development rests on “weak theory, insensitive methods, and the absence of a tapestry of firm facts.” Ultimately, he offers reassurance that humankind is mostly resilient and that above all, “[t]he differences among the world’s children and adolescents are trivial when compared with the similarities.”

Cotton Tenants: Three Families

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By James Agee, photographs by Walker Evans, and edited by John Summers

Melville House, 224 pp., illustrated, $24.95

Published in 1941, James Agee and Walker Evans’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” blended word and image in a way that felt entirely new to document a condition as old as humankind. The subjects, three poor white families in rural Alabama, led lives characterized by relentless poverty, ignorance, and hunger. Rendered iconic and even beautiful by Evans’s photographs, their wretchedness as detailed in Agee’s prose was intended as a rebuke to a nation in which not everyone was going to emerge from the Great Depression.

A paragon of lyrical realism, the book is a legend; in “Cotton Tenants,” we get the rare chance to examine a masterpiece’s source material: the 30,000-word text Agee wrote originally for Forbes magazine, which never published it. What Adam Haslett, in a brilliant introduction, terms “morally indignant anthropology” is on full display here. Forever at the mercy of the landlord and the weather, the tenant farmer is always in debt. Describing the families’ grim homes and meals, their children’s pitiable schools, Agee writes with clinical, angry precision. One tenant farmer’s child, he predicts, will likely grow into “one of the unpredictable, desperate young men the South is full of.”

The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves

By Stephen Grosz

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Norton, 225 pp., $24.95

Old-fashioned psychoanalysis — four or five days a week of talking, or just lying on the couch without speaking — doesn’t seem like it would match modern neuroscientific discoveries as a thrilling subject. Yet there’s something almost magnetically compelling about Stephen Grosz’s new book, in which he tells stories of patients past: their secrets, their dreams, their pain. “At times, I feel I’m a tour guide — part detective, part translator,” Grosz writes of his role as analyst. It’s an apt description, too, for the way he introduces new insights to the reader.

Some readers will recognize familiar issues among Grosz’s patients — they grapple with problems of intimacy, feeling unloved, resenting their family members, fearing death or, arguably worse, “the catastrophe of indifference.” Grosz tells their stories in spare, gentle prose — his compassion for his patients is palpable, and constant, on these pages — the result is a sense of shared humanity, understanding and even hope.

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