PODCAST Review of: The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War, by Aaron Sheehan-Dean



Review of:  The Calculus of Violence: How Americans Fought the Civil War, by Aaron Sheehan-Dean

Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog

PODCAST Review of: President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier, by C.W. Goodyear


Review of: President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier, by C.W. Goodyear

Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog

Review of: President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier, by C.W. Goodyear

I first encountered James A. Garfield in the course of my boyhood enthusiasm for philately with a colorful six-cent mint specimen, part of the 1922 series of definitive stamps dominated by images of American presidents. There was Garfield, an immense head in profile sporting a massive beard, encased in a protective mount on a decorative album page. I admired the stamp, even if I paid little mind to the figure it portrayed, just one of a number of undistinguished bearded or bewhiskered faces in the series. Except for the orange pigment of his portrait, he was otherwise colorless.

As I grew older, American history became a passion and presidential biographies a favored genre, but Garfield eluded me. Nor did I pursue him. I did occasionally stumble upon General Garfield in Civil War studies. And I was vaguely familiar with the fact that like Lincoln he was both born in a log cabin and murdered by an assassin, but he was in office for only a matter of months. I could recite from memory every American president in chronological order, and tell you something about each—but not very much about Garfield.

So it was that I came to President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier [2023], a detailed, skillfully executed, well-written, if uneven full-length biography by historian C.W. Goodyear. The Garfield that emerges in this treatment is capable, intellectual, modest, steadfast, and genial—but also dull … almost painfully dull. So much so that it is only the author’s talent with a pen that keeps the reader engaged. But even Goodyear’s literary skills—and these are manifest—threaten to be inadequate to the task of maintaining interest in his subject after a while.

That Garfield comes off so lackluster is strikingly incongruous to his actual life story, which at least partly seems plucked from a Dickens tale. Born in 1831 to a hardscrabble struggle in the Ohio backwoods that intensified when he lost his father at a very young age, he was raised by his strong-willed, religious mother who favored him over his siblings and encouraged his brilliant mind. He grew up tall, powerfully built, and handsome, with an unusually large head that was much remarked upon by observers in his lifetime. Like Lincoln, he was a voracious reader and autodidact. After a short-lived stint prodding mules as a canal towpath driver in his teens, his mother helped secure for him an avenue to formal education at a seminary, where he met his future wife Lucretia, whom he called “Crete.” Employed variously as a teacher, carpenter, preacher, and janitor, he worked his way first into Ohio’s Hiram College and then Williams College in Massachusetts, later returning in triumph to Hiram as its principal. He then entered politics as a member of the Ohio state legislature, until the outbreak of the Civil War found him with a colonel’s commission, fired by a passion for abolition to oppose the slave power. He demonstrated courage and acumen on the battlefield, and was promoted first to brigadier general, and then—after service in campaigns at Shiloh and Chickamauga—to major general. He left the army in 1863 and embarked on a career as Republican congressman that lasted almost two decades, until he won election as president of the United States. In the meantime, he also found time to practice law and publish a mathematical proof of the Pythagorean theorem. With a life like that, how is it that the living Garfield seems so lifeless?

Part of it is that in this account he seems nearly devoid of emotion. He makes few close friends. His relationship with Crete is conspicuous in the absence of genuine affection, and their early marriage marked by long separations that are agonizing for her but in Garfield provoke little but indifference; he eventually admits he does not really love her. A fleeting affair and the sudden loss of a cherished child finally bring them together, but in the throes of emotional turmoil he yet strikes as more calculating than crushed. If there is one constant to his temperament, it is a desire to navigate a middle path in every arena, ever chasing compromise, while quietly trying to have it both ways. In his first years of marriage, he demonstrates a determination to be husband and father without actually being physically present in either role. Likewise, this trait marks a tendency to moderate his convictions by convenience. The prewar period finds him a fervent proponent of abolition, but willing to temper that when it menaces harmony in his circles. Later, he is just as passionate for African American civil rights—that is, until that proves inelegant to consensus.

The book’s subtitle, From Radical to Unifier, more specifically speaks to Garfield’s shift from one of the “Radical Republicans” who advanced black equality and clashed with Andrew Johnson, to a congressman who could work across interparty enmity to achieve balance amid ongoing factional feuding. But “from radical to unifier” can also be taken as a larger metaphor of a trajectory for Garfield that smacks less of an evolution than a tightly wound tension that ever attempted to have that cake and eat it too. And since it is impossible to simultaneously be both “radical” and “unifier,” there is a hint that Garfield was always more bureaucrat than believer. But was he? Truthfully, it is difficult to know what to make of him much of the time. And it is not clear whether the blame for that should be laid upon his biographer or upon a subject so enigmatic he defies analysis.

Garfield indeed proves elusive; he hardly could have achieved so much success without an engine of ambition, but that drive remained mostly out of sight. As a major general in the midpoint of the Civil War, he stridently resisted calls to shed his uniform for Congress, but yet finally went to Washington. Almost two decades later, he stood equally adamant against efforts to recruit him as nominee for president, but ultimately ran and won the White House. Was he really so self-effacing, or simply expert at disguising his intentions? And what of his integrity? Garfield was implicated in the infamous Credit Mobilier scandal, but it did not stick. In an era marked by rampant political corruption, Garfield was no crook, but neither was he an innocent, trading certain favors for rewards when it suited him. Was he honest? Here we are reminded of what Jake Gittes, Jack Nicholson’s character in the film Chinatown, replied when asked that about a detective on the case: “As far as it goes. He has to swim in the same water we all do.”

For me, presidential biographies shine the brightest when they employ the central protagonist to serve as a focal point for relating the grander narrative of the historical period that hosted them. Think John Meacham, in Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. Or Robert Caro, in The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate. Or, in perhaps its most extreme manifestation, A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, by Sidney Blumenthal, where Lincoln himself is at times reduced to a series of bit parts. What those magnificent biographies have in common is their ability to brilliantly interpret not simply the lives that are spotlighted but also the landscape that each trod upon in the days they walked the earth. Unfortunately, this element is curiously absent in much of Goodyear’s President Garfield.

Garfield’s life was mostly centered upon the tumultuous times of Civil War and Reconstruction, but those who came to this volume with little familiarity of the era would learn almost nothing of it from Goodyear except how events or individuals touched Garfield directly. The war hardly exists beyond Garfield’s service in it. So too what follows in the struggle for equality for the formerly enslaved against the fierce resistance of Andrew Johnson, culminating in the battle over impeachment. Remarkably, Ulysses S. Grant, second to Lincoln arguably the most significant figure of the Civil War and its aftermath, makes only brief appearances, and then merely as a vague creature of Garfield’s disdain. And there is just a rough sketch of the disputed election that makes Rutherford B. Hayes president and brings an end to Reconstruction. Goodyear’s Garfield is actually the opposite of Blumenthal’s Lincoln: this time it is all Garfield and history is relegated to the cameo.

And then suddenly, unexpectedly, Goodyear rescues the narrative and the reader—and even poor Garfield—with a dramatic shift that stuns an unsuspecting audience and not only succeeds, but succeeds splendidly! It seems as if we have finally reached the moment the author has been eagerly anticipating. Garfield has little more than fifteen months to live, but no matter: this now is clearly the book Goodyear had long set out to write. Part of the reader’s reward for sticking it out is the deep dive into history denied in prior chapters.

Only fifteen years had passed since Appomattox, and the two-party system was in flux, reinventing itself for another era. The Democrats—the party of secession—were slowly clawing their way back to relevance, but Republicans remained the dominant national political force, often by waving the “bloody shirt.” Since the failed attempt to remove Johnson, the party had cooled in their commitment to civil rights, a reflection of a public that had grown weary of the plight of freedmen and longed for reconciliation. Fostering economic growth was the prime directive for Republicans, but so too was jealously guarding their power and privilege, as well as the entrenched spoils system that had begotten.

Party members had few policy differences, but yet fell into fierce factions that characterized what came to be a deadlocked Republican National Convention in 1880. The “Stalwarts” were led by flamboyant kingmaker Roscoe Conkling, who had long been locked in a bitter personal and political rivalry with James G. Blaine of the “Half-Breeds,” who sought the nomination for president. Garfield and the latter were on friendly terms, and had worked closely together in the House when Blaine had been Speaker, although Garfield was identified with neither faction. Conkling and the Stalwarts were Grant loyalists, and dreamed instead of his return to the White House. There were also reformers who coalesced around former Senator John Sherman. Garfield delivered the nominating speech for Sherman, but then—after thirty-five ballots failed to select a candidate—he himself ended up as the consensus “Dark Horse” improbably (and reluctantly) drafted as the Republican Party nominee! The ticket was rounded out with Chester A. Arthur, a Conkling crony, for vice president. Goodyear’s treatment of the drawn-out convention crisis and Garfield’s unlikely selection is truly superlative!

So too is the author’s coverage of Garfield’s brief presidency, as well as the theatrical foreshadowing of his death, as he was stalked by the unhinged jobseeker Charles J. Guiteau. Garfield prevailed in a close election against the Democrat, former Union General Winfield Scott Hancock. Once in office, Garfield refused to go along with Conkling’s picks for financially lucrative appointments, which sparked an extended stand-off that surprisingly climaxed with the Senate resignation of Conkling and his close ally Thomas “Easy Boss” Platt, asserting Garfield’s executive prerogative, striking a blow for reform, and upending Conkling’s legendary control over spoils. Meanwhile, homeless conman Guiteau, who imagined himself somehow personally responsible for Garfield’s election, grew enraged at his failure to be named to the Paris consulship, which he fantasized was his due, and plotted instead to kill the president. Guiteau proved both insane and incompetent; his bullets fired at point-blank range missed Garfield’s spine and all major organs.

Odds are that Garfield might have recovered, but the exploratory insertion of unwashed fingers into the site of the wound—more than once, by multiple doctors—likely introduced the aggressive infection that was to leave him in the lingering, excruciating pain he bore heroically until he succumbed seventy-nine days later. The reader fully experiences his suffering. It seems that Joseph Lister’s antiseptic methods, adopted across much of Europe, were scoffed at by the American medical community, which ridiculed the notion of invisible germs. For weeks, doctors continued to probe in an attempt to locate the bullet lodged within. In a fascinating subplot, a young Alexander Graham Bell elbowed his way in with a promising new invention that although unsuccessful in this case became prototype for the first metal detector. The nation grew fixated on daily updates to the president’s condition until the moment he was gone. He had been president for little more than six months, nearly half of it spent incapacitated, dying of his injuries. The tragedy of Garfield is mitigated somewhat by the saga of his successor: President Arthur astonished everyone when an unlikely letter stirred his conscience to abandon Conkling and embark on a reformist crusade.

While faults can be found, ultimately the author redeems himself and his work. The best does lie in the final third of the volume, which because of content and style is far more fast-paced and satisfying than that which precedes it, but that earlier material nevertheless sustains the entirety. Yes, those readers less acquainted than this reviewer with the Civil War and Reconstruction will at times have a tougher hill to climb placing Garfield’s life in appropriate context, but the careful study and trenchant analysis of the forces in play in Republican politics leading up to the 1880 nomination, as well as the underscore to the significance of a brief presidency too often overlooked, without doubt distinguishes Goodyear as a fine writer, researcher, and historian. President Garfield represents an important contribution to the historiography, and likely will be seen as the definitive biography for some time to come. As stamp values plummeted, I long ago liquidated my collection for pennies on the dollar, so I no longer own that six-cent Garfield, but now, thanks to Goodyear, I can boast a deeper understanding of the man’s life and his legacy.

Note: This edition came to me through an early reviewers’ program.

Note: I reviewed the Blumenthal Lincoln biography here: Review of: A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. I, 1809–1849, by Sidney Blumenthal

PODCAST Review of: Scars on the Land: An Environmental History of Slavery in the American South, by David Silkenat



Review of:  Scars on the Land: An Environmental History of Slavery in the American South, by David Silkenat

Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog

PODCAST Review of: Harpers Ferry Under Fire: A Border Town in the American Civil War, by Dennis E. Frye


Review of:  Harpers Ferry Under Fire: A Border Town in the American Civil War, by Dennis E. Frye

Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog

Review of: Harpers Ferry Under Fire: A Border Town in the American Civil War, by Dennis E. Frye

Most people only know of Harpers Ferry as the town in present day West Virginia where John Brown, a zealous if mercurial abolitionist, set out to launch an ill-fated slave insurrection by seizing the national armory located there, an attempt which was completely crushed, sending John Brown to the gallows and his body “a-mouldering” in the grave shortly thereafter. Those more familiar with the antebellum are aware that many historians consider that event to be the opening salvo of the Civil War, as hyper-paranoid southern planters—who no longer as in Jefferson’s day bemoaned the burden and the guilt of their “peculiar institution,” but instead championed human chattel slavery as the most perfect system ever ordained by the Almighty—imagined the mostly anti-slavery north as a hostile belligerency intent to deprive them of their property rights and to actively incite the enslaved to murder them in their sleep. Brown was hanged seventeen months prior to the assault on Fort Sumter, but some have suggested that first cannonball was loosed at his ghost.

Those in the know will also point out that the man in overall command when they took Brown down was Colonel Robert E. Lee, and that his aide-de-camp was J. E. B. Stuart. And perhaps to underscore the outrageous twists of fate history is known to fashion for us, they might add that present for Brown’s later execution were Thomas J. (later “Stonewall”) Jackson, John Wilkes Booth, Walt Whitman, and even Edmund Ruffin, the notable Fire-eater who was among the first to fire actual rather than metaphorical shots at Sumter in 1861. You can’t make this stuff up.

But it turns out that John Brown’s Raid in 1859 represents only a small portion of the Civil War history that clings to Harpers Ferry, perhaps the most quintessential border town of the day, which changed hands no less than eight times between 1861 and 1865. Both sides took turns destroying the successively rebuilt Baltimore & Ohio bridge—the only railroad bridge connecting northern and southern states across the Potomac. Harpers Ferry was integral to Lee’s invasion of Maryland that ended at Antietam, and had a supporting role at the outskirts of the Gettysburg campaign, as well as in Jubal Early’s aborted march on Washington. There’s much more, and perhaps the finest source for the best immersion in the big picture would be Harpers Ferry Under Fire: A Border Town in the American Civil War [2012], by the award-winning retired National Park Service Historian Dennis E. Frye, who spent some three decades of his career at Harpers Ferry National Park. Frye is a talented writer, the narrative is fascinating, and this volume is further enhanced by lavish illustrations, period photographs, and maps. Even better, while the book is clearly aimed towards a popular audience, it rigorously adheres to strict standards of scholarship in presentation, interpretation, and analysis.

West Virginia has the distinction of being the only state to secede from another state, as its Unionist sympathies took issue with Virginia’s secession from the United States. But it had been a long time coming. The hardscrabble farmers in the west had little in common with the wealthy elite slaveholding planter aristocracy that dominated the state’s government. This is not to say those to the west of Richmond were any less racist than the rest of the south, or much of the antislavery north for that matter; it was a nation then firmly based upon principles of white supremacy. For Virginia and its southern allies, the conflict hinged on their perceived right to spread slavery to the vast territories seized from Mexico in recent years. For the north, it was about free soil for white men and for Union. West Virginia went with Union. But back then, when John Brown took his crusade to free the enslaved to Harpers Ferry, it was still part of Virginia, and while some residents might have feared for the worst, most Americans could not have dreamed of the scale of bloodletting that was just around the corner, nor that the cause of emancipation—John Brown’s cause—would one day also become inextricably entwined with the preservation of the Union.

Harpers Ferry is most notable for its dramatic topography, which has nothing to do with its armory and arsenal—the object of Brown’s raid—but everything to do with its persistent pain at the very edge of Civil War. Strategically situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, where today the states of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia meet, the town proper is surrounded on three sides by the high grounds at Bolivar Heights to the west, Loudoun Heights to the south, and Maryland Heights to the east that define its geography and the challenges facing both attackers and defenders. It is immediately clear to even the most amateur tactician that the town is indefensible without control of the heights.

I was drawn to Harpers Ferry Under Fire by design. I had already registered for the Civil War Institute (CWI) 2023 Summer Conference at Gettysburg College, and selected Harpers Ferry National Historic Park as one of my battlefield tours. While I have visited Antietam and Gettysburg on multiple occasions, somehow I had never made it to Harpers Ferry. These CWI conference tours are typically quite competitive, so I was pleased when I learned that I had won a seat on the bus. And not only that—the tour guide was to be none other than Dennis Frye himself! I have met Dennis before, at other Civil War events, including a weekend at Chambersburg some years ago with the late, legendary Ed Bearss. Like Ed, Dennis is very sharp, with an encyclopedic knowledge of people and events. I assigned myself his book as homework.

The original itinerary was scheduled to include a morning tour of the town, designated as the Harpers Ferry Historic District—which hosts John Brown’s Fort as well as many restored nineteenth century buildings that have been converted into museums—and an afternoon tour focused on the battles and the heights. Inclement weather threatened, so Dennis mixed it up and had us visit the heights first. In retrospect, in my opinion, this turned out to have been the better approach anyway, because when you stand on the heights and look down upon the town proper below, you understand instantly the strategic implications from a military standpoint. Later, walking the streets of the hamlet and looking up at those heights, you can fully imagine the terror of the citizens there during the war years, completely at the mercy of whatever side controlled that higher ground.

The most famous example of that was when, during Lee’s Antietam campaign, he sought to protect his supply line by splitting his forces and sending Stonewall Jackson to seize Harpers Ferry. Jackson’s victory there proved brilliant and decisive, a devastating federal capitulation that turned more than twelve thousand Union troops over to the rebels—the largest surrender of United States military personnel until the Battle of Bataan eighty years afterward! This event is covered in depth in Harpers Ferry Under Fire, but given Dennis Frye’s passion for history, the story proved to be a great deal more compelling when gathered with a group of fellow Civil War afficionados on Bolivar Heights, spectacular views of the Potomac River and the Cumberland Gap before us, while Dennis rocked on his heels, pumped his arms in the air, and let his voice boom with the drama and excitement of those events so very long past. While Dennis lectured, gesturing wildly, I think all of us, if only for an instant, were transported back to 1862, gazing down from the heights at the tiny town below through the eyes of a common soldier, garbed in blue or gray. The remainder of the day’s tour, including John Brown’s Fort and the town’s environs, was a superlative experience, but it was that stirring moment on Bolivar Heights that will remain with me for many years to come.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the Fort, where John Brown’s raid ended in disaster, ten of his men killed, including two of his sons, and the badly wounded Brown captured, along with a handful of survivors. The original structure, which served as the Armory’s fire engine and guard house, was later dismantled, moved out of state and rebuilt, then dismantled again and eventually re-erected not far from the location where Brown and his men sought refuge that day, before it was stormed by the militia. It is open to the public. Walking around and within it today, there is an omnipresent eerie feeling. Whatever Brown’s personal flaws—and those were manifold—he went to Harpers Ferry on a sort of holy quest and was martyred for it. The final words he scribbled down in his prison cell—”I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood”—rang in my ears as I trod upon that sacred ground.

If you are a Civil War buff, you must visit Harpers Ferry. Frye himself is retired, but if you can somehow arrange to get a tour of the park with this man, jump on the chance. Failing that, read Harpers Ferry Under Fire, for it will enhance your understanding of what occurred there, and through the text the authoritative voice of Dennis Frye will speak to you.

A link to Harpers Ferry National Park is here: Harpers Ferry National Park

More on the CWI Summer Conference is here: Civil War Institute at Gettysburg Summer Conference 2024

NOTE: Except for the cover art, all photos featured here were taken by Stan Prager

PODCAST Review of: The Making of the African Queen: Or How I went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and almost lost my mind, by Katharine Hepburn



Review of:  The Making of the African Queen: Or How I went to Africa With Bogart,  Bacall and Huston and almost lost my mind, by Katharine Hepburn

Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog

Review of: The Making of the African Queen: Or How I went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and almost lost my mind, by Katharine Hepburn

One of my favorite small venues for an intimate, unique concert experience is The Kate—short for The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center—in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, a 285-seat theater with outstanding acoustics that hosts multi-genre entertainment in a historic building dating back to 1911 that once served as both theater and Town Hall. In 2013, my wife and I had the great pleasure of seeing Jefferson Airplane alum Marty Balin rock out at The Kate. More recently, we swayed in our seats to the cool Delta blues of Tab Benoit. On each occasion, prior to the show, we explored the photographs and memorabilia on display in the Katharine Hepburn Museum on the lower level, dedicated to the life and achievements of an iconic individual who was certainly one of greatest actors of her generation.

Hepburn was a little girl when she first stayed at her affluent family’s summer home in the tony Fenwick section of Old Saybrook, just a year after the opening of the then newly constructed Town Hall that today bears her name. She later dubbed the area “paradise,” returning frequently over the course of her long life and eventually retiring to her mansion in Fenwick overlooking the water, where she spent her final years until her death at 96 in 2003. The newly restored performing arts center named in her honor opened six years later, with the blessings of the Hepburn family and her estate.

One of the eye-catching attractions in the museum includes an exhibit behind glass showcasing Hepburn’s performance with co-star Humphrey Bogart in the celebrated 1951 film, The African Queen, that features a copy of the 1987 memoir credited to her whimsically entitled The Making of the African Queen: Or How I went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and almost lost my mind. I turned to my wife and asked her to add this book to my Christmas list.

Now, full disclosure: I am a huge Bogie fan (my wife less so!). I recently read and reviewed the thick biography Bogart, by A.M. Sperber & Eric Lax, and in the process screened twenty of his films in roughly chronological order. My wife sat in on some of these, including The African Queen, certainly her favorite of the bunch. If I had to pick five of the finest Bogie films of all time, that would certainly make the list. Often denied the recognition that was his due, he won his sole Oscar for his role here. A magnificent performer, in this case Bogart benefited not only from his repeat collaboration with the immensely talented director John Huston, but also by starring opposite the inimitable Kate Hepburn.

For those who are unfamiliar with the film (what planet are you from?), The African Queen, based on the C. S. Forester novel of the same name, is the story of the unlikely alliance and later romantic relationship between the staid, puritanical British missionary and “spinster” (a term suitable to the times) Rose Sayers (Hepburn) and the gin-soaked Canadian Charlie Allnut (Bogart), skipper of the riverboat African Queen, set in German East Africa (present-day Tanzania) at the outbreak of World War I. After aggression by German forces leaves Rose stranded, she is taken onboard by Allnut. In a classic journey motif that brilliantly courts elements of drama, adventure, comedy, and romance, the film follows this mismatched duo as they conspire to arm the African Queen with explosives and pilot it on a mission to torpedo a German gunboat. Those who watch the movie for the first time will be especially struck by the superlative performances of both Bogie and Hepburn, two middle-aged stars who not only complement one another beautifully but turn out an unexpected on-screen chemistry that has the audience emotionally involved, rooting for their romance and their cause. It is a tribute to their mutual talents that the two successfully communicated palpable on-screen passion to audiences of the time who must have been struck by the stark disparity between the movie posters depicting Bogie as a muscular he-man and Hepburn as a kind of Rita Hayworth twin—something neither the scrawny Bogart nor the aging Hepburn live up to in the Technicolor print. But even more so because those same 1951 audiences were well acquainted with the real-life 51-year-old Bogart’s marriage to the beautiful 27-year-old starlet Lauren (real name Betty) Bacall, born of an on-set romance when she was just 19.

Katharine Hepburn had a long career in Hollywood marked by dramatic ebbs and flows. While she was nominated for an Academy Award twelve times and set a record for winning the Best Actress Oscar four times, more than once her star power waned, and at one point she was even widely considered “box office poison.” Her offscreen persona was both unconventional and eccentric. She defied contemporary expectations of how a woman and a movie star should behave: shunning celebrity, sparring with the press, expressing unpopular political opinions, wearing trousers at a time that was unacceptable for ladies, fiercely guarding her privacy, and stubbornly clinging to an independent lifestyle. She was pilloried as boyish, and accused of lesbianism at a time when that was a vicious expletive, but she evolved into a twentieth century cultural icon. Divorced at a young age, she once dated Howard Hughes, but spent nearly three decades in a relationship with the married, alcoholic Spencer Tracy, with whom she costarred in nine films. Rumors of liaisons with other women still linger. Perhaps no other female figure cut a groove in Hollywood as deep as Kate Hepburn did.

Hepburn’s book, The Making of the African Queen, showed up under the tree last Christmas morning—the original hardcover first edition, for that matter—and I basically inhaled it over the next couple of days. It’s an easy read. Hepburn gets the byline but it’s clear pretty early on that the “narrative” is actually comprised of excerpts from interviews she sat for, strung together to give the appearance of a book-length chronicle. But no matter. Those familiar with Kate’s distinctive voice and the cadence of her signature Transatlantic accent will start to hear her pronouncing each syllable of the text in your head as you go along. That quality is comforting. But it is nevertheless plagued by features that should make you crazy: it’s anecdotal, it’s uneven, it’s conversational, it’s meandering, and maddingly it reveals only what Hepburn is willing to share. In short, if this were any other book about any other subject related by any other person, you would grow not only annoyed but fully exasperated. But somehow, unexpectedly, it turns out to be nothing less than a delight!

If The African Queen is a cinema adventure, aspects of the film production were a real-life one. Unusual for its time, bulky Technicolor cameras were transported to on-location shoots in Uganda and Congo, nations today that then were still under colonial rule. The heat was oppressive, and danger seemed to lurk everywhere, but fears of lions and crocodiles were trumped by smaller but fiercer army ants and mosquitoes, a host of water-borne pathogens, as well as an existential horror of leeches. Tough guy Bogie was miserable from start to finish, but Hepburn reveled in the moment, savoring the exotic flora and fauna, and bursting with excitement. Still, almost everyone—including Kate—fell terribly ill at least some of the time with dysentery and a variety of other jungle maladies. At one point Hepburn was vomiting between takes into a bucket placed off-screen. The running joke was that the only two who never got sick were Bogie and director Huston, because they eschewed the local water and only drank Scotch!

Huston went to Africa hoping to “out-Hemingway” Hemingway in big game hunting, but his safari chasing herds of elephants turned into a lone antelope instead. He seemed to do better with Kate. The book does not openly admit to an affair, but the intimacy between them leaps off the page. Hepburn proves affable through every paragraph, although sometimes less than heroic. Readers will wince when upon first arrival in Africa she instantly flies into a fit of rage that has her evict a staff member from an assigned hotel room that to her mind rightly should belong to a VIP of her caliber! And while she is especially kind, almost to a fault, to every African recruited to serve her in various capacities, there is a patronizing tone in her recollections that can’t help but make us a bit uncomfortable today. Still, you cannot detect even a hint of racism. You get the feeling that she genuinely liked people of all stations of life, but could be unrepentantly condescending towards those who did not, like her, walk among the stars. Yet, warts and all—and these are certainly apparent—Kate comes off today, long after her passing, as likeable as she did to those who knew her in her times. And what times those must have been!This book is pure entertainment, with the added bonus of forty-five wonderful behind-the-scenes photographs that readers may linger upon far longer than the pages of text. For those who loved the film as I do, the candid moments that are captured of Bogie, Hepburn, and Huston are precious relics of classic Hollywood that stir the heart and the soul. If you are a fan, carve out the time and read The Making of the African Queen. But more importantly, screen The African Queen again. Then you will truly know what I mean.

A link to The Kate: The Kate

A link to the The African Queen on IMDB: IMDB: The African Queen

My review of the Bogart bio: Review of: Bogart, by A.M. Sperber & Eric Lax

NOTE:  My top five Bogie films: Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, The Caine Mutiny—but there are so many, it’s difficult to choose…

PODCAST Review of: The Battle of Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community, by Matthew J. Clavin


Review of:  The Battle of Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community, by Matthew J. Clavin

Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog

PODCAST Review of: Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America, by Megan Kate Nelson


Review of:  Saving Yellowstone: Exploration and Preservation in Reconstruction America, by Megan Kate Nelson

Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog