Furious Cool: Richard Pryor
I was excited to review “Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the world that made him”. I don’t generally read biographies but Pryor was one of my favorite entertainers back “in the day”. The last part of the title, ‘the world that made him’ seemed to promise some of the social history that I most enjoy. It turns out that the book, written by brothers David and Joe Henry, is neither a biography not a social history, at least not in any form that I am familiar with.
This has been a difficult review to write. The Henry brothers writing is very readable. They do look at the entertainment world that Richard Pryor existed in. The book lacked the documentation I expect but it was never meant to be a scholarly work so that is my problem not a flaw with the book. I learned quite a bit about Pryor and the state of the entertainment industry that I did not know. Ed Sullivan was a pioneer presenting black entertainers on network television? I never knew that and found it surprising that the King of plate spinners and marionettes would also showcase artists like Richard Pryor.
Whenever a new movie or comedy album was discussed, it seemed to me, that the entire body of Pryor’s work was gone over again until I was totally confused about what the new project was, what came before and what was being discussed that had not happened yet. I don’t read about entertainment, maybe that is normal in the genre. I found it confusing.
My biggest problem with the book, what made this review so difficult to write, should be a plus for the Henry brothers as historians, they managed to stay impartial on Pryor’s violence with the women in his life. They simply reported the facts, as soon as there was serious commitment Pryor did what he could to drive women away, violence was a common tactic. They reported it, they did not try to hide it, they did not try to sugarcoat it, but I really wanted something more. What I am not sure, perhaps a look at the socioeconomic and cultural conditions that empowered him to beat multiple women and prevented them from leaving him. Maybe talk to the woman and get their side of the story? Of all of Pryor’s self destructive behavior it was the way he treated women that bothered me the most.
Overall this is a well written book but be prepared for Pryor, and others, bad behavior.
Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea
“Southern Storm: Sherman’s March to the Sea” is the first book by Noah A Trudeau and the second book on William Tecumseh Sherman that I have read. Trudeau has done an excellent job of writing what should be a popular history on an iconic event in the history of the United States, an event that has suffered at the hands of partisan revision at the hands of Southern “historians”. The campaign was brutal, Sherman intended to destroy any military asset in his path and he had his troops foraging to extend the supplies they brought with them. They took any horses needed to replace their worn mounts and destroyed broken down mounts and pack animals to prevent them from later serving the rebels. Did civilian homes burn? Sure some did, it was a windy dry day in Atlanta and Sherman was not going to risk his men fighting the spread of fires. As Sherman said to a complaining rebel prisoner, anyone that starts a war has no right to complain of the violence.
The book reads like the works of Cornelius Ryan. Ryan attended reunions of World War Two veterans for both sides to collect his personal stories. Trudeau had diaries. He had so many diaries that he was able to reconstruct the weather, he said he had at least six references to the weather from each day. What are future historians going to do? Will they be able to look at old Facebook pages and Twitter feeds?
There were a few disappointments in the book. The maps could have had a scale on them. I was often wondered were his lines separated by miles or tens of miles. “Special Field Orders #15”, forty acres and a mule, which could be the most controversial aspect of the entire operation was only mentioned in one paragraph. Without prior knowledge of the Special Order a reader would not have a clue what it was about from Trudeau’s work. Even though the subtitle was “Sherman’s march to the sea” I was a little disappointed that the narrative ended with Sherman in Savannah. Sherman and his Army of the West pulled up stakes and marched through the Carolinas and into Virginia, where is that story? The post march history was interesting but can be summed up simply, the north is proud of Sherman and the Army of the West for their brave efforts to shorten the war of rebellion and the south resents hearing about it.
It was a good read, informative and at times entertaining. I recommend it, as long as 550 pages of text with an extra 200 pages of index, bibliography, and muster rolls does not seem overwhelming. I was concerned about the length, it did take longer than usual for me to finish it but at no time did the book seem to drag or become repetitive which is sometimes a problem when an author has a point they want to make so badly that they are willing to beat it to death. This is not that sort of book but the sparse treatment of the benefits derived from the labors of the African Americans who left their “owners” and volunteered their local knowledge and labor to the Army of the West makes me wonder if anything else was overlooked.
The Cholera Years
“The Cholera Years: the United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866” is only tangentially a medical history. Charles Rosenberg used the opening year of the three worst epidemics of cholera in the United States as lenses through which he could take snapshots of American society. In each year examined the disease spread westward across Europe to inevitably reach the shores North America. By looking at how the medical and religious communities, public officials, and the people, those represented by newspaper editorials, reacted to the stress of the impending epidemics Rosenberg was able to clearly show how society changed over the decades.
“The nest of college-birds are three
Law, Physic, and Divinity
And while these three remain combined
They keep the world oppressed and blind.
On Lab’rers money lawyers feast
Also the Doctor and the Priest.”
This poem, from 1832, shows that popular American distrust for academics is long held. However by 1848 even the upper-class was turning its back on physicians. Today we see governors who ignore the best scientific opinions and follow their own ignorance on Ebola. It does seem that the more things change the more they stay the same. Rosenberg attributes this to the medical communities inability to cope with epidemics, the 1832 outbreak of cholera in particular. The fact is that Galenic physician’s had never been effective. What was it that changed between 1832 and 1848 that made their ineffectiveness unacceptable? Rosenberg does not really look at what caused the change, he just shows that the general attitude did change.
Originally published in 1962 Rosenberg’s book is still readable. The writing is better, in my opinion, than most of the histories published today. I recommend it to anyone interested in 19th century American history, it provides insight to the social values of the times. I do wish that someone would take a look at what caused attitudes about physicians to change. Was it competition? Thomsonians, herbalists, and Homeopathic medicine was giving the traditional physicians competition. They were saving more people by avoiding, at least in large doses, the mercury, arsenic, and other poisons that were some of traditional physicians favorite medicines. I have read how physicians reacted to the competition. One way strategy was forming a trade union, the American Medical Association, and blackballing Homeopaths. I would like to see a scholarly paper on how people reacted to the competition.