Books

Books in Brief | Kate Tuttle

Fresh looks at Black Elk, JFK, and table manners

President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
National Archive/Newsmakers
President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

BLACK ELK: The Life of an American Visionary

By Joe Jackson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 624 pp., $30

Black Elk was born during the Civil War to a people and a nation on the verge of enormous, wrenching change. His story, told to and published by a white poet as “Black Elk Speaks” in 1930, would bring him posthumous fame in the 1960s when it was embraced by an American counterculture thirsty for what they saw as an authentic spiritual message. In this remarkably thorough new biography, Joe Jackson tells of the man whose life “spanned a remarkable era of change not only for the Sioux but for all Plains Indians.” Jackson’s deep research shows on every page, and his narrative skill makes this long biography a gripping, even thrilling read.

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A member of the Oglala Lakota — called Sioux by outsiders — Black Elk grew up in a community known for its success, with “a reputation for flaunting their power and pride.” All that changed as whites began encroaching on their land, spanning present-day Wyoming and the Dakotas. Black Elk was a strange and sickly child, beset by increasingly florid visions, along with voices exhorting him to save his people’s civilization. As a young man, he worked as a traditional healer but felt drawn to a wider world; in 1886 he signed on with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, playing a “fiercely painted, gaily gotten up’’ Indian for white audiences here and abroad. Black Elk returned home in time for the tragedy at Wounded Knee and the removal of his people to reservations; he married, converted to Catholicism, became a father. Jackson’s biography raises painful questions about cultural survival, what it means to be a member of a community, what we owe one another in times of violent change, and the complexities of spirituality. “Memory is history, but whose memory prevails?” Jackson asks; in this book, he helps bring back a crucial American voice.

JFK AND THE MASCULINE MYSTIQUE: Sex and Power on the New Frontier

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By Steven Watts

Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s, 432 pp., $29.99

In the decade leading up to John F. Kennedy’s 1960 election, writes Steven Watts, American intellectuals publicly bemoaned a national crisis in masculinity. Books and articles warned that the “prosperity of the good life . . . had made men flabby and weak,” suburban conformists comfortable wielding “the barbeque spatula rather than the hunting rifle.” What had happened to the frontier individualist, the bold iconoclast, the master of his own destiny? Enter the junior senator from Massachusetts. Although nothing in his political philosophy set him apart from his party (or indeed, the other party, in that more centrist time), Kennedy’s star rocketed as the public took note of his “attractive aura of vibrant, confident masculinity.”

A historian, Watts knows better than to offer yet another Kennedy biography; this is instead a cultural examination of the late president’s potent personal image, his extremely influential style, and the milieu in which he and it flourished. Kennedy’s sex appeal attracted both abundant lovers and adoring imitators, including the men Watts profiles, from Frank Sinatra to Ian Fleming to Hugh Hefner. In the years since JFK’s death, Watts argues, his masculine mystique has left a complex legacy; men may have found themselves liberated from the old strictures, but as the Kennedy-esque character Don Draper showed us on television’s “Mad Men,” it was a quick descent from hip philanderer to lost soul. Worse, Kennedy’s example “moved the cult of charismatic personality to the forefront of modern American political life,” subsuming thoughtful discussion of policy to “the politics of celebrity.”

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TABLE MANNERS: How to Behave in the Modern World and Why Bother

By Jeremiah Tower

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 160 pp., $20

With a career spanning the early days of Chez Panisse and the founding of several other California restaurants, Jeremiah Tower knows how to serve a meal. In this slim, breezy book, he offers advice, tips, and strategies for hosting or attending the perfect dinner party, whether at home or at a restaurant. On starting and ending parties, Tower is charmingly straightforward (“There is no such thing as being fashionably early”) and surprisingly helpful (when you want guests to think about leaving, begin referring to the party in past tense: “What a great night this was!”). Though much briefer and brisker, his advice can match Miss Manners’s for wit: “If you dig in for a taste of someone’s food without asking first, then that person had better be in love with you.”

When it comes to the nitty gritty of courses and cutlery, Tower focuses on what’s sensible — eat asparagus with your hands unless it’s slathered in sauce; use the fork and knife in whatever manner you were taught; and don’t criticize others. Rather than a tool to emphasize social difference, he writes, “[t]he whole point of manners, especially table manners, is the opposite of pretensions.” Does the world really need another book on dining etiquette? Probably not, but this one is as satisfying as a good meal, and it might be what we need right now.

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