THE FIREBRAND AND THE FIRST LADY: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice
By Patricia Bell-Scott. Knopf, 454 pp., illustrated, $30
While Eleanor Roosevelt is one of the most famous and respected public figures of the last century, writer and activist Pauli Murray is much less well known. This thrilling new book by Patricia Bell-Scott ought to change that. In telling the story of the friendship between two extraordinary women, Bell-Scott in effect casts biography as conversation; from the first letters the two exchanged, Murray and Roosevelt began a long dialogue about race, freedom, equality, war, patriotism, justice, and what it means to be an American. Although they often disagreed the two shared deep respect, an impressive ability to listen to each other, and genuine affection despite their difference in status.
A generation younger than Roosevelt, Murray was born in 1910 in North Carolina; she moved to New York after graduating from high school, leaving behind the segregated South for the lure of Harlem. As a brilliant black woman who was attracted to other women, her path was never easy — she was denied admission to graduate school once because of her race, later it was sexism that kept her from advanced legal study at Harvard (she eventually received law degrees from Howard, Berkeley, and Yale, and became the first African-American woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest). In Murray's letters to Roosevelt, as well as Bell-Scott's masterful, understated narrative of their historical context, we can see the evolution of a powerful, important American voice.
DEAD PRESIDENTS: An American Adventure Into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation's Leaders
By Brady Carlson. Norton, 336 pp., $26.95
George Washington left instructions for a very low-key funeral; he wished to be buried "in a private manner, without parade, or funeral Oration." Naturally, nobody honored his wishes. As Brady Carlson writes in this amusing survey of presidential death and remembrance, "[t]hat's not how we roll." Instead, Washington was sent off with a massive public funeral, including speeches by four different clergymen, and a nationwide mourning intense enough to cause "shortages of black cloth in some parts of the country." He wasn't even left alone once interred — a few years later, a disgruntled former employee broke into the family vault and tried to steal Washington's head (he stole the wrong skull, it turns out).
Carlson, a public radio host in New Hampshire, begins his investigation at Mount Vernon and ends at Mount Rushmore. In between, he explores the deaths and postmortem public lives of our presidents, from the medical malpractice that tortured and finally killed James Garfield to the 1991 disinterment of Zachary Taylor to determine whether he'd been poisoned (he hadn't). The book blends wry humor with thought-provoking analysis. What should we make, for instance, of Grover Norquist (himself named for a dead president) and his quest to put Ronald Reagan's name on at least one thing in every county in the nation? Carlson's obsession reminds us that this is one job that never really ends; "the chief job of a dead president is to tell us about ourselves, our history, and how we imagine our past and our future."
DEATH'S SUMMER COAT: What the History of Death and Dying Teaches Us About Life and Living
By Brandy Schillace. (Pegasus, 336 pp., $26.95)
Why is death such an uncomfortable idea for so many of us? Of course it's natural to fear dying and to grieve lost loved ones, but as Brandy Schillace points out, "once [death] was understood as the natural order of things," while now it feels as if "death breaks into our lives as an unexpected surprise." For Schillace, a historian of medicine, much of the blame lies in how we overestimate the power of medical care to thwart death. "Death has become the enemy of medicine, to be fought at all costs," she notes; despite that 7 in 10 of us wish to die at home, we still often push doctors to maintain life rather than guide us toward death.
In this thoughtful, wide-ranging examination, Schillace looks at how cultures worldwide have dealt with death, both in the past and present. Rituals that reflect a communal understanding of the pain felt by survivors can help ease the sting of loss, she points out, while modern western society looks at grief as an abnormal state, or assign it a timetable. The book offers no single answer or prescription, but it proposes we at least start the conversation. "We cannot wait until death happens to talk about death," Schillace writes. "Why not meet now, talk now, while the sun is still warm on your back?"
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at email@example.com.