Monthly Archives: August 2016

American Tragedian: The Life of Edwin Booth

Daniel J. Watermeier’s American Tragedian has just been selected as a finalist for the George Freedley Memorial Award for an exemplary work in the field of theater or performance. American Tragedian examines the life of Edwin Booth (1833-1893), widely considered to be the preeminent tragic actor of his era, and the greatest-ever American Shakespearean actor. His achievements, however, are often overshadowed by his brother’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln. (In a weird coincidence, Edwin Booth saved Lincoln’s son, Robert, from serious injury or death when he slipped between a moving train and the platform.)

This biography focuses on Booth the actor, the producer-director, and the champion of the “classical” acting tradition. Booth’s histrionic “genius” and his extraordinary popular success were affected by a number of off-stage buffetings, including the unexpected loss of his actor-father, Lincoln’s assassination, the premature death of two wives, and the failure of his theater and the resulting bankruptcy. In American Tragedian, Booth’s behind-the-scenes life is intertwined with and balanced against his on-stage work.

The scholarship that underpins this work is first-rate, but scholarship alone does not a good biography make. The biographer has to get on the wave-length of his subject and gain a kind of intimacy with that personality, as this one does. It was gratifying that my reading of this book confirmed what theatre historians have been buzzing about for years: Watermeier’s will be the definitive Booth biography.—Felicia Hardison Londré, author of History of World Theater: From the English Restoration to the Present

The 71st Anniversary of the Bombing of Nagasaki and How One Man Tried to Avoid the War

On the 71st anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki, the city’s mayor Tomihisa Taue urged the international community to use its “collective wisdom” to rid the world of nuclear weapons, according to the Japan Times. Through diplomacy, we can try to work for a peaceful future. But could war with Japan have been avoided all together? Diplomat Saburo Kurusu desperately tried to achieve just that.

On December 7, 1941, the course of U.S. history changed forever with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Three weeks prior, Japanese Special Envoy to the United States Saburo Kurusu visited Washington in an attempt to further peace talks between Japan and America and spare his country the loss he knew would occur if a war began. But as he reported, “Working for peace is not as simple as starting a war.” For more than seventy years, many have unfairly viewed Kurusu and his visit as part of the Pearl Harbor plot. Editors J. Garry Clifford and Masako R. Okura seek to dispel this myth with their edition of Kurusu’s memoir, The Desperate Diplomat.

Kurusu published his personal memoir in 1952, in Japanese, describing his efforts to prevent war between the two nations, his total lack of knowledge regarding the Pearl Harbor attack, and what “might have been” had he been successful in his endeavor for peace, while offering an exclusive perspective on the Japanese reaction to the attack. However, the information contained in his memoir was unavailable except to those fluent in Japanese. With the discovery of Kurusu’s own English memoir, his story can finally be told to a wider audience. Clifford and Okura have used both the Japanese and English memoirs and added an introduction and annotations to Kurusu’s story, making The Desperate Diplomat an essential look at an event that remains controversial in the history of both nations.

A unique and invaluable study of American-Japanese diplomatic history. The authors present a compelling explanation of how Americans—both the general public and critical members of the Roosevelt administration—perceived Kurusu. The authors also highlight Kurusu’s relevance in the run-up to war and do much to bring him out from behind Admiral Nomura’s shadow, while also presenting a compelling portrait of familiar figures including Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The use of often overlooked but essential sources such as the Bernard Baruch and Arthur Krock papers make this an impressive volume.— Sidney Pash, author of The Currents of War: A New History of American-Japanese Relations, 1899–1941

White Male Working Class Frustration

“Joe is simultaneously racist, homophobic, sexist, a gun lover, patriotic, a World War II veteran, a provider and a dangerously frustrated and violent individual.”

The current presidential election features working class frustration with the current political and economic climate.   This anger emerges from a number of directions – the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in the economic meltdown of 2008-2009, the predominance of the one percent over real power, a rapidly changing demography of the United States, and  the ability of African Americans, Latino Americans and gay and lesbians to hold political office and corporate jobs with visibility.   Political commentators often remark about the newness of this phenomenon.    The under-recognized classic American film Joe (1970) illustrates that this is not the case.  Joe emerged as the openness and freedom of the counterculture became awash with drugs and degradation and as the sixties closed with the Manson murders, millions of new addicts and the loss of faith in a new and liberated system.  Peter Boyle’s masterful performance as the title character, a working class, family man who has had it with all of the changes he witnesses is highly representative of the current political backlash.  Joe is simultaneously racist, homophobic, sexist, a gun lover, patriotic, a World War II veteran, a provider and a dangerously frustrated and violent individual.   He is attempting to make sense of a country he does not understand in which he feels he gains no respect.  His children are never home, his job is monotonous, and he finds it difficult to make friends in his middle age.  Joe exists during a time of great social and economic change and he finds that his old rules of morality, female subservience and nationalism no longer apply.  Joe is a film well worth taking another look at; it is emblematic of a recurring pattern of white male working class frustration.

Guest blogger Gerald R. Butters, Jr. writes about American history and popular culture. For more of his writing, see his website at