Intriguing figures in U.S. history: A round-up of five books from 2015

A participant in the “Spanish Conspiracy,” one of America’s first professional women artists, a preeminent tragic actor (and brother of an assassin), a once-disparaged artist, and a Quaker president: 2015 brought books on a variety of notable people from different eras, each with a fascinating personal history linked to the history of the nation.

PrintIn The Unknown Travels and Dubious Pursuits of William Clark, Jo Ann Trogdon reveals Clark’s questionable activities during the years before his famous journey with Meriwether Lewis west of the Mississippi. Delving into the details of Clark’s diary and ledger entries, Trogdon investigates evidence linking Clark to a series of plots—often called the Spanish Conspiracy—in which corrupt officials sought to line their pockets with Spanish money and to separate Kentucky from the United States.

“Trogdon’s surprising discoveries point to Clark’s apparent involvement in a tangled web of conspiracy involving a foreign power. This thought-provoking book illustrates the potential rewards of curiosity and painstaking research in out-of-the-way places.”—William E. Foley, author of Wilderness Journey: The Life of William Clark

As is often the case with spouses of the famous, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne has beenValenti_SPH_Vol2_FNL overshadowed by her husband, Nathaniel. She was, however, an artist in her own right and one of the first women in America to earn an income from her painting and decorative arts; she was also a writer and traveler at a time when women typically confined their activities to the home. In addition, she was a source for many of Nathaniel’s stories and responsible for much that he accomplished. Patricia Dunlavy Valenti concludes her story with the second volume of Sophia Peabody Hawthorne: A Life, Volume 2, 1848-1871 (Volume 1, published in 2004), which details the less examined and more surprising second half of Sophia’s life.

“Patricia Valenti’s elegantly written new biography gives a fresh—often startling, always compelling—view of the endlessly fascinating Sophia Peabody Hawthorne as mother, wife, artist, and political creature. A must-read for anyone who cares about the education of children, it is wise, knowledgeable, and impossible to put down.”—Diane Jacobs, author of Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters

Watermeier_American Tragedian_FNLWhen John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, his older brother Edwin was devastated. A leading stage star, Edwin Booth thought his career had ended. But over the next thirty years Booth would overcome the shadow of John Wilkes’s infamy and steadily advance a reputation as America’s greatest-ever Shakespearean actor. As interesting as it is informative, American Tragedian: The Life of Edwin Booth by Daniel J. Watermeier offers an in-depth look at the successful career and tumultuous life of one of the American stage’s most celebrated figures.

“After a lifetime of work, Daniel Watermeier has produced what will soon emerge as the foremost biography of Edwin Booth; the one that scholars will read first when pursuing the wily Booths.”—Dr. Stephen M. Archer, University of Missouri

 

Thomas Hart Benton: Discoveries and Interpretations by Henry Adams explores theCatalogue page argumentative, brilliant, and enormously influential painter who inspired acclaim and loathing among students, friends, fellow artists, and critics. In a series of provocative essays, Adams examines the many facets of the man as artist and the pitched battles of his long career, including the 36-year-long love-hate relationship with his student, Jackson Pollock. Adams ends with an account of his own twenty-five-year struggle to expose fakes of Benton’s work.

“Unfailingly interesting, this book should be a basic text for students in American art and cultural studies. It should also be required reading for anyone interested in the history of ideas (even mistaken ones) and the tangled interfaces between art, politics, and living. The Benton who emerges here—cultivated, emotional, a bit of a hick, an aesthetic experimenter—is a new Benton, a towering figure in the history of American painting. He’s Harry Truman and an old master muralist rolled into one, a movie star and a one-man show.”—Karal Ann Marling, Professor Emeritus of Art History and American Studies, University of Minnesota

Ingle_Nixon's First Cover-up_FNLrevNixon’s unique and personally tailored brand of evangelical Quakerism stayed hidden when he wanted it to, but was on display whenever he felt it might help him advance his career in some way. Ingle’s unparalleled knowledge of Quakerism enables him to deftly point out how Nixon bent the traditional rules of the religion to suit his needs or, in some cases, simply ignored them entirely. This theme of the constant contradiction between Nixon’s actions and his apparent religious beliefs makes Nixon’s First Cover-up: The Religious Life of a Quaker President truly a groundbreaking study both in the field of Nixon research as well as the field of the influence of religion on the U.S. presidency. Forty years after Nixon’s resignation from office, Ingle’s work proves there remains much about the thirty-seventh president that the American public does not yet know.

“Extremely well written, impeccably researched, and highly accessible. Ingle presents an active thesis which will engage both Nixon scholars and readers. Nixon’s First Cover-up stands alone on its subject, and it is an excellent addition to the Nixon literature.”—John Robert Greene, author The Limits of Power: The Nixon and Ford Administrations

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