As the stay-at-home era drags on, my reading habits have shifted. My mind can’t stick with novels anymore — my brain is somehow out of step with the fictional universe. But biographies continue to consume me, as a deep immersion into someone else’s life and a diversion from my own.
The four biographies featured here are not escapist literature. The first tells the story of U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a demagogue with rabble-rousing strategies startlingly similar to those of our current president. A recently published life of radical Catholic activist Dorothy Day examines a woman of profound convictions and contradictions. Rounding out the list are two biographies of pathbreaking 19th-century women, an explorer and a poet, who both broke new ground in their cosseted age.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) is a staple of American history books, a Cold War hell-raiser whose witch hunts for communists seem like a long-ago nightmare in black and white. Now, in “Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Sen. Joe McCarthy” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), author and investigative journalist Larry Tye brings McCarthy back to roaring life.
McCarthy, the Republican U.S. senator from Wisconsin, occupied “a different moral universe,” said one longtime observer. “He asked himself only two questions: What do I want and how do I get it?” McCarthy’s hunt for communist-influenced employees in the government, the arts and the military, often conducted during secret congressional hearings, ruined careers and claimed lives through shame, stress and suicide. His Republican Party enabled his rampage until he took on a target “too big to bully” — the U.S. Army.
McCarthy’s battles with (and manipulation of) the press, his political vendettas, his disregard for facts and his dismissal of his campaign’s human costs are documented in appalling detail, but Tye strengthens his portrait with his evenhandedness, painstakingly deconstructing stories and myths advanced by both McCarthy devotees and detractors. Though readers may grow to loathe McCarthy, it’s painful to watch his alcohol-soaked deterioration. This book, meticulously documented and written in a brisk, readable style, should be required reading for any student of American history, and general readers will blanch at its parallels with today’s fraught political discourse.
Dorothy Day (1897-1980) led a contradictory, complex life. Though today she’s a candidate for Catholic sainthood, in her wayward years as a writer in New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1920s she took lovers (including Eugene O’Neill) and worked for ultraprogressive causes. She had a traumatic early abortion and a fraught relationship with her daughter. Then a conversion experience in Greenwich Village sent Day on the road to founding the Catholic Worker Movement, a radical experiment in helping the poor whose followers rejected comfort and materialism, living and working side by side with the poor.
These phases of the lives of Day, her family, her friends and her followers unfold in John Loughery and Blythe Randolph’s biography, “Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century” (Simon & Schuster). The authors’ chapters about the Greenwich Village of the early 20th century are a window into the fabled literary and arts scene of that era. They ably document the strains and privations of life in the Catholic Worker houses, where Day’s acolytes served the poor, asked nothing in return and were sometimes abused for their trouble.
Day’s activism would earn her the scrutiny of the FBI, but her Catholic beliefs at times confounded her leftist comrades (she was staunchly anti-abortion, and her attitudes toward homosexuality were “strictly in line with the most conservative of Church teachings”). This biography doesn’t quite get to the essence of what drove Day toward such a difficult life, or what inspired such fierce loyalty among her followers. Still, it’s fascinating portrait of a very complicated woman, and will be eagerly devoured by anyone interested in Day and her current prospects for sanctification.
Two other biographies worth checking out:
Brad Ricca’s “Olive the Lionheart” (St. Martin’s Press) tells the story of Olive MacLeod (1880-1936), a scion of an ancient Scottish clan, with its own family castle on the Isle of Skye. Her life was already a storybook affair when her ornithologist fiancé disappeared on an African expedition. Olive went to find him, and the story of her daunting 3,700-mile trek into an uncharted part of central Africa is suffused with observations of unparalleled natural beauty, abundant wildlife and daunting weather. She encountered Africans living as they had for hundreds of years, and she struggled with colonial officials mysteriously disinclined to tell the truth about the death of Boyd Alexander. Though his telegraphic style won’t suit everyone’s taste, Ricca is a vivid travel and adventure writer, and he doesn’t gloss over the less savory aspects of Africa’s colonial era. MacLeod’s sentimental diary entries seem at times at odds with the facts of a woman with grit and courage to spare. But her story speaks for itself, and it’s one for the books.
Finally, Martha Ackmann’s “These Fevered Days” (Norton) examines the life of poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) by revisiting 10 pivotal points of the poet’s life to highlight her influences and contradictions, notably her need for isolation and her longing for fame. Ackmann, a lifelong Dickinson scholar, has a deep empathy for Dickinson’s struggles, an expert’s knowledge of her poetry and an elegant writing style that will engage even those familiar with Dickinson’s story.