Michael Gorra’s The Saddest Words (2021) is an intellectual griffin of sorts: a serious literary biography, a thoroughly researched history of an era, and a thought-provoking, fearless, and moral accounting of our past.
Departing from most biographies of Faulkner, Gorra focuses primarily on how the Civil War, slavery, and its aftermath influenced his major novels and best short stories. In close readings of his work and life, he demonstrates how Faulkner was generally more successful in dealing with each issue through his fictional characters than in his own day to day existence. Gorra also adds the necessary foundational material by bringing in dozens of relevant historical voices, from Civil War generals, to poets, novelists, abolitionists, Civil Rights leaders, and Klansmen, and pulls no punches.
It’s a wise, honest, and powerful story of a flawed man, his inner demons, where they likely came from, and how we’re still fighting these self-same battles today.
Marx’s Inferno (2016), by William Clare Roberts, is another thoroughly researched and illuminating intellectual biography. But it’s more a biography of a book than a man. Capital is its primary focus, and its hook, its narrative framing, are the intentional parallels between that unfinished masterwork and Dante’s Inferno.
Like Gorra’s excellent biography, Roberts does a masterful job in presenting historical context and relevant influences, and creates a large and diverse choir of voices that sing together in harmony and in dissonance, with Robert Owen, Saint-Simon, and Proudhon taking center stage. It’s loaded with essential sources — those predating Marx, his contemporaries, and more recent analyses. And it does something I truly love in works of this kind: Roberts puts myriad dots where they should be, but lets readers, with few exceptions, connect the dots for themselves. There is very little in the way of editorial comment, and when it does appear, it generally rings true and fits the moment.
Will post some more thoughts on both books in the coming days. Both, in my not so humble opinion, are “must-reads.”