by ilan berman
regnery, 256 pages, $27.95
This book arrived in my mailbox the day the Winter Olympics in Sochi began. It was disquieting to read Ilan Berman’s grim account of the dying of a once great state as the vulgar grandiosity of a Russia that no longer exists was put on artificial display. Implosion is not a work of history. The author, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, offers a breezy statistical flyover that captures in alarming detail what in his view is the inevitability of Russia’s diminishment. The population is shrinking due to emigration, a high mortality rate, the disintegration of the family, a culture of abortion, an AIDS crisis that officials term “epidemic,” and a total fertility rate of 1.34, far below the 2.1 needed to maintain the current population. In Berman’s words: “If the twentieth century was defined in large part by the rise of Russia (in the form of the Soviet Union), the twenty-first will be shaped in great measure by its unraveling.”
For readers of First Things, the most arresting sections of this small book deal with the future of Islam in Russia. The apparently inexorable growth of Islam in Western Europe is well known; Berman reports that the Muslim population is growing even more dramatically in Russia. Of course, many of the Muslims who were once part of the Soviet Union now live in the Turkic republics, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and the like; but a significant percentage live in territories that are now part of post-Soviet Russia. As the Slavic population constricts, their numbers expand. Between 1989 and 2002, the Slavs declined by nearly 4 percent and the Muslims grew by 20 percent. Muslims account for 21 to 23 million out of a population of 144 million (15 percent). Moscow is now home to two million Muslims. The religious transformation these numbers portend will have catastrophic consequences for the future of Christianity.
If, as Berman contends, the Muslims approach a majority of the population of Russia by mid-century, Islam will not only form a band stretching from Morocco across North Africa, the Middle East to Indonesia; it will have fashioned a northern band of co-religionists from Novosibirsk in central Russia across Eastern and Western Europe to the Atlantic Ocean.
Implosion is a light read, but it is a book with a heavy message. Like all predictions of the future, its accuracy can only be tested by what unfolds in the decades to come. But even if “implosion” turns out to be too strong a word to describe what is happening in Russia today, enough is known to envision a Russia far different from the country that lives in the imagination of the West.
Robert Louis Wilken is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity, Emeritus at the University of Virginia.
by janneken smucker
johns hopkins, 288 pages, $34.95
You can call a people plain, but beauty will out. That is the lesson of Janneken Smucker’s Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon, which tells the story of the Amish quilt craze that began in the 1970s.
While the Amish of Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio retain much of the culture of their German ancestors, they learned to quilt here in America. Quilting was never popular in Europe, but this distinctly American craft appealed to the Amish sense of thrift. Amish women would save remnants from dressmaking and piece them together into quilt tops. Because the Amish wore dark, solid colors, quilts made from plain clothing developed a distinct look and became known as “old dark quilts.”
In the late 1960s, connoisseurs of modern art began to notice that the old dark quilts of the Amish bore a resemblance to abstract expressionism and pop art. These quilts, made in the early twentieth century, were not influenced by art trends but had in fact anticipated techniques like color field painting. Amish quilts started showing up on gallery walls. A supply chain developed involving pickers (quilt scouts who knocked on kitchen doors in Lancaster County), wholesalers, and collectors. Once most of the truly antique quilts had been discovered, the price of authentic Amish quilts soared into the thousands of dollars.
The popularity of Amish quilts has changed the way the Amish view their handiwork. When the quilt became an art object rather than a bed covering, it also became a commodity. Treating quilts as fine art took them out of context and away from their intended use, but it allowed women an income of their own. By the time the old dark quilts became popular, Amish quilters had moved on to favor hearts and ribbons over diamonds and squares. Yet as the market developed, quilt makers re-adopted the older, simpler patterns and styles, even using old fabrics to give their quilts the appearance of age and thereby increase their value.
Smucker does not deal with the theology or beliefs of the Amish beyond a brief explanation of the Ordnungthe rules by which each Amish community governs itself. The story of the rise of Amish quilts tells us more about the values of the art world than it does about the Amish. Yet it is a story that reminds us that constraint fosters creativity, and scarcity creates desire.
Betsy Childs is the web and publications editor of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.
by boris kachka
simon & schuster, 448 pages, $28
Journalist Boris Kachka’s popular history of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the publishing house that did much to shape the canon of twentieth-century literature in America, could aptly be subtitled The Saga of Roger Straus. Scion of Guggenheims, Straus co-founded FSG in 1946 with John Farrara moneyed WASP, apparently a nonfactor in the house, and accordingly a nonpresence in Kachka’s book. The office conquests of the flamboyant Straus certainly detain Kachka, Mad Menstyle; above all, though, Kachka hymns Straus’s heroic preservation of FSG’s autonomy and uniqueness in a time of corporate takeovers.
Distinctly a secondary character in Hothouse, because personally unassuming, is Robert Giroux, the legendarily attentive editor whose taste defined the house from 1955 through the 1980s. In Giroux’s heyday, FSG boasted Eliot, Berryman, Bishop, Kerouac, Barthelme, Wolfe, and Sontag, among others, plus a dazzling list of foreign authors in translation. With his nose for quality, Giroux brought the house modest sales but multitudinous awards, from the Nobel on down. He implemented publisher Straus’s vision for FSG: to chase not bestsellers but the best authors, to accrue prestige rather than millions.
An FSG specialty in the Giroux era was Jewish and Catholic literatureindeed, FSG practically demarcated the latter canon. In an industry dominated by WASPs, the Jewish-Catholic house, with its token Protestant partner, cultivated, on the one hand, Malamud, Singer, and Roth and, on the other, O’Connor, Merton, Percy, Lowell, and Stafford. Kachka even narrates FSG’s attempt to influence the deliberations of Vatican II concerning JewishCatholic relations. Rushing “insider” reports from the Council, FSG is said to have manipulated opinion so as to exert a philo-Semitic influence on the cardinals, with some success.
FSG’s institutional consciousness of its role in Catholic intellectual life lasted into this century, with Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own (2003), a study of four American Catholic writersthree (O’Connor, Merton, Percy) from Giroux’s roster. Jesuit-educated like Giroux, Elie was an FSG editor; his departure in 2012 is emblematic of some doubtfulness regarding whether FSG intends to perpetuate this particular legacy or merely curate it.
Much else is in doubt, as Kachka concludes. After decades of principled railing against corporate publishing, in 1993 Straus sold FSG to Holtzbrinck Publishing Group. He did so on the theory that Holtzbrinck would allow the house to preserve its identity and relative autonomy. But Straus’s successor as publisher and president, Jonathan Galassi, has regularized FSG significantly vis-à-vis other Holtzbrinck properties. Whether the house as presently constituted will maintain FSG’s high-art cloutwhether current stars Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides will be followed by yet more award-reaping literary novelistsmuch less its historically distinctive, canon-making taste, remains to be seen.
Hothouse memorably chronicles FSG’s age of heroic independence, but the late chapters, disproportionately concerned with Franzen’s tragicomic media blunders, take a bathetic turn. We may be glad that Kachka’s accessible book has memorialized that heroic age if it is indeed over.
Julia Yost is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Yale University.
by niall ferguson
penguin, 192 pages, $26.95
Harvard historian Niall Ferguson is the author of, among many other works, the provocatively revisionist The Pity of War (which presented a reinterpretation of the causes and consequences of World War I) and such sweeping, erudite chronicles as Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011), which explored the West’s astonishing rise through such elements as science, the rule of law, and modern medicineand the tragic loss of faith in these accomplishments at precisely the time when “the Rest” eagerly assimilate them with great success. In this new work, based on lectures delivered on BBC Radio in 2012, Ferguson provides a taut and topical analysis of our current social, political, and economic malaise.
Invoking Adam Smith’s “stationary” state (that is, a situation where a formerly affluent country ceases to grow), Ferguson contends that the West has entered a stagnant condition, emphasizing that it is “our laws and institutions that are the problem.” He looks at the causes of degeneration in four areas: democracy (catastrophic debt as a violation of the Burkean partnership between generations), capitalism (excessive regulation), the rule of law (which has been transmogrified into the Dickensian rule of lawyers), and civil society (the state fills the void left by the decline of voluntary associations).
This literate and satisfying book reminds one of the work of the estimable Robert Nisbet (with the notable qualifications that Nisbet would have paid more attention to the expansion of a very hostile secularism in our time). Like Nisbet, moreover, Ferguson’s analysis is not marred by any sort of historical inevitability. On the contrary, the great project, “to reverse the Great Degeneration,” is completely in our hands and found in a “return to those first principles of a truly free society” that Ferguson explicates so elegantly.
Gregory J. Sullivan is a lawyer in private practice in New Jersey and a lecturer in the politics department at Princeton University.
by martin dodwell
book guild, 199 pages, $36.50
Shakespeare is well known, but Anne Linewho is she? That might be an initial response to this fascinating book by an English “independent scholar,” or non-academic historian.
St. Anne Line is one of the “Forty Martyrs of England and Wales,” Catholics who suffered for their faith during and after the Reformation and were canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970. She was executed by hanging on February 27, 1601, having been convicted of the felony of harboring (housing, sheltering, or aiding) English subjects ordained abroad as Catholic priests, which had been declared a capital crime in 1585.
After 1586 she became, in the words of the Jesuit Henry Garnet, “both the Martha and the Mary” of the clandestine and illegal English Catholic mission. Although racked by debilitating chronic illness, she dedicated her time and meager resourceswith extensive assistance from aristocratic Catholic families, Dodwell arguesto assisting and supporting the underground network of Catholic clergy in England, until her arrest at an illegal Mass and her subsequent trial and execution.
Dodwell’s argument is that Shakespeare might have known Line personally, and certainly would have known of her activity in managing a “safe house” in London for Catholic clergy. She is obliquely, but “clearly”at least to the crypto-Catholics in court circlesalluded to (at times together with her husband) in Shakespeare’s poem “The Phoenix and the Turtle,” in Sonnet 74, and, especially, in his play Cymbeline. In addition, The Tempest alludes to her execution.
Dodwell sees Anne Line as the phoenix and her husband as the turtle(dove) in the poem of that name, discerns intentional echoes of the Catholic Requiem Mass in it, and suggests that it was written as a kind of memorial to the martyr after her secret Catholic Requiem.
Sonnet 74 he sees as another memorial to Anne Line and her execution: “My life hath in thislinesome interest . . . my body being dead/The coward conquest of a wretch’s knife.” (Anne was hanged, but before being hanged borrowed the executioner’s knife to cut off some of her clothes to throw to the crowd, a gesture that figured prominently in accounts of her execution.)
His thoughts on Anne Line and The Tempest are regrettably elliptical. As to Cymbeline, which he suggests might be read as “Symbol-Line,” he sees the play as subtly pro-Catholic throughout, and even as insinuating a future reconciliation between England and Rome. Its heroine, Imogen, he believes, was in large part based on Anne Line, and in Imogen’s secret and exiled husband, Posthumus, he sees Roger Line, who had been forced into exile in 1586, three years after they married, and was never able to return to England and his wife before his death late in 1593 or early in 1594.
And Shakespeare? Evidence has been mounting over the past thirty years to support the following claims, none of them uncontested, and presented here in order of descending agreement: that Shakespeare came from a strongly Catholic family; that in all of his works he refrains from disparaging Catholic practices and beliefs, or abusing the papacy, which all would have gone over well with his audiences had he done it; that many of his plays and poems display a sympathetic attitude towards, or at least a nostalgia for, Catholicism; that he may have studied in a Lancashire Catholic gentry household (as “William Shakeshafte”) in the early 1580s, or abroad in a Catholic educational establishment; even that on three occasions in the mid-1580s he may have registered as a visitor to the English College in Rome; that he appears to have avoided making his Easter Communion in the Church of England during the years that he resided in Southward (where unusually good records of communicants have been kept and preserved); and that “he died a papist” (to cite Richard Davies, writing some decades after Shakespeare’s death).
What Dodwell does in the book is elucidate connectionsin the network of clandestine Catholics; between players, playhouse owners, and landlords with one another and with Line’s family; and in Shakespeare’s plays and poetrythat make at least possible, and in my view plausible, his postulation that Anne Line was “Shakespeare’s tragic muse.”
William Tighe is associate professor of history at Muhlenberg College.