Eminent Lives

Searching for stuff by Joseph Epstein I came across his biography of Alexis de Tocqueville in a series called Eminent Lives. I glanced at the information on a flyleaf and was intrigued at the possibilities: Christopher Hitchens on Thomas Jefferson, for example. I want to get the one on Freud, as an engaging narration and explanation of his life would be welcome.

I’ve now read two: the Tocqueville and the Beethoven. The latter is done by Edmund Morris. I wondered when I saw he had done a biography of Reagan, but after I read a riveting prologue I marveled no more; the guy won a Pulitzer for doing one of the Roosevelts back in the day. It seems the series editor (one James Atlas) is looking for a story well told.

With Epstein it is humor you get; and with Morris you get drama. With both a good, basic biography done with intelligence and flair. One often picks up a biography wondering if it will be more than solid plodding: the admirable research all present in an uninterrupted sequence of indigestible lumps; as if having all the facts straight were the only consideration. These authors so far know better.

There is a difference between merely informed companionship on the tour of another person’s life and interesting, informed companionship–if you know what I mean. And it seems to me that this James Atlas is a very sensible chap.


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