NYT History Book Reviews: Who Got Noticed this Week?

Historians in the News
tags: NYT History Book Reviews

Erik Moshe is a journalist, an Air Force veteran, and a student at Broward College. Visit his site: TheCentersphere.yolasite.com

In Jonas Salk: A Life, biographer Charlotte Decroes Jacobs examines one of America’s most beloved and decorated scientific heroes, a man named Jonas Salk. His polio vaccine all but eradicated a crippling disease from the face of the earth, and the scientific community never forgave him. This first full account of Salk’s life, released by Oxford University Press in May of 2015, reveals the complex man behind the controversial legend. Jacobs, a physician and cancer researcher herself, currently cares for veterans with cancer at the Palo Alto Veterans Medical Center. The NYT's appointed reviewer is David Oshinsky, who is mentioned in the biography.  In this excerpt from the book, published by Salon, Oshinsky's interview with Salk is cited:

… Historian David Oshinsky disagreed. “Salk, in truth, was more than an innocent bystander,” he contended. “One of his great gifts was a knack for putting himself forward in a manner that made him seem genuinely indifferent to his fame, a reluctant celebrity, embarrassed by the accolades, oblivious to the rewards.” Perhaps most reliable are the observations of his longtime secretary, Lorraine Friedman, who had watched the drama unfold close-up. “He wasn’t looking for fame,” she maintained in an interview months before she died. “It cost him an awful lot personally. Many in the scientific community just didn’t believe he was the innocent he claimed to be.” At one point, Salk had confided in Friedman, “I wish this had never happened to me.”

Oshinsky is an American historian currently focusing on the history of medicine and public health. He is also the author of Polio: An American Story, which may explain why he was both qualified and eager to review Jacobs's book.

He said: "The Salk trials rank among the great successes of modern medicine, and Jacobs tells the story as well as it’s ever been told. This is science writing at its best."


"The world is a zoo," pined Edward Albee. That statement can be overwhelmingly true in some cases, to the detriment of the human race, and to the benefit of zookeepers from this dimension to the next. In Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, by Pamela Newkirk, a young Congolese man arrived from central Africa and was featured in an anthropology exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Two years later, the New York Zoological Gardens displayed him in its Monkey House, caging the slight 103-pound, 4-foot 11-inch tall man with an orangutan. The attraction became an international sensation, drawing thousands of New Yorkers and commanding headlines from across the nation and Europe. Spectacle explores the circumstances of Ota Benga’s captivity, the international controversy it inspired, and his efforts to adjust to American life. Using primary historical documents, Newkirk traces Ota’s tragic life, from Africa to St. Louis to New York, and finally to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he lived out the remainder of his short life.

Yikes! Lynchburg? Not a welcoming name of a city by any means. Hamburg is a stellar alternative. Heck, even Cyburg. Iceburg is also an improvement, unless you are a resident with Titanic expectations.

In 1990, Newkirk was one of the reporters who traveled to South Africa with Reverend Jesse Jackson where she witnessed Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. In 1992, her New York Newsday reporting team was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Spot News. The NYT reviewer, Harriet A. Washington, is a medical ethicist and the author of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. Her book has been described as "the first and only comprehensive history of medical experimentation on African Americans." In her review of Newkirk's work, she said, "this book’s stellar achievement eclipses its flaws. Here is a gripping and painstaking narrative that breaks new ground. Now, after a century, Benga has finally been heard."

Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva, by Rosemary Sullivan is the next book on this week's list. Born in the early years of the Soviet Union, Svetlana Stalin spent her youth inside the walls of the Kremlin. Communist Party privilege protected her from the horrors that plagued Russia, but she did not escape tragedy—the loss of everyone she loved, including her mother, two brothers, aunts and uncles, and a lover twice her age, she was deliberately exiled to Siberia by her father. As she gradually learned about the extent of her father’s brutality after his death, Svetlana could no longer keep quiet and in 1967 shocked the world by defecting to the United States, leaving her two children behind. But although she was never a part of her father’s regime, she could not escape his legacy. Her life in America was fractured; she moved frequently, married disastrously, shunned other Russian exiles, and ultimately died in poverty in Wisconsin. With access to KGB, CIA, and Soviet government archives, as well as the close cooperation of Svetlana’s daughter, Rosemary Sullivan pieces together Svetlana's life in this new book.

The author has travelled widely in Europe and Latin America, and is currently a professor of English at the University of Toronto.

Here is an interesting poem by Sullivan, titled "Landing," from her book Blue Panic, published in 1991.

The clouds move with the precision

of waves, lunge over our backs,

drag us down to drowning.

Below: the Andes' jagged crawl,

crustaceans lumbering

under sea weight.

We land

on the floor of your psyche,

hang by a thread, scour

rusted decks of years

for salvage.

We fear the thing feeding there in the dark.

Once you owed it a life.

Janet Maslin, the reviewer, described the biography as "an admiring portrait of an amazingly adaptable person facing all but insurmountable odds."


The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood by Steven Mintz tops this week’s epic countdown! (Every week has been epic, just like Shark Week on the Discovery Channel.) Mintz, an American historian and professor at the University of Texas, is considered to be a leading authority on the history of families and children. The Prime of Life puts today’s challenges into new perspective by exploring how past generations navigated through various passages of their lives. Organized into seven chapters, Mintz’s inquiry begins by tackling the subject of the transition to adulthood from adolescence — “The passage from youth to adulthood is life’s unsurpassed drama,” he writes — and then isolates six defining features of adulthood: achieving intimacy, choosing marriage, not choosing marriage, parenting, work and midlife angst. He then proceeds to give us the full historical timeline of each.

Coming of age has never been easy or predictable, and the process has always been shaped by gender and class.” Mintz further elaborates on his views about adulthood in an article he wrote for Psychology Today entitled Seven Lessons from the History of Adulthood. He said:

Growing up has never been easy.

Except for a brief period stretching from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s, becoming an adult has always been a difficult and a prolonged process, filled with angst, uncertainty, setbacks, and reversals. Defining one’s adult identity, coming across an intimate partner, and finding a meaningful career are among life’s greatest challenges, making one’s twenties life’s decisive, and difficult, decade.

Condemnation of the young for failing to grow up is among this society’s oldest traditions

As early as the 17th century, many young people resisted the pressure to settle down and embrace the conventions of mature manhood and womanhood. They engaged in revels, dances, and games—prompting attacks on the “rising generation” for failing to live up to its elders’ example. But resistance to becoming an adult has long been part of the process of entering full adulthood.

He has written for HNN before, and if you happen to meet him in the street or at a local cafe, you should be advised that it isn't wise to call him "over the hill" - that is, unless he's on a black horse, commandeering his steed like Napoleon, and gaining speed as he does so, as the terrain slopes ever more. Everyone gets old. Such is life. 

HNN Editor Aside Actually, Mintz was born in 1953, one year before the birth of the HNN editor.  In the opinion of the HNN Editor -- born in 1954 -- this makes Mintz middle aged. 

In Mintz's words, “in our youth-oriented society, it is essential to reclaim the value of adulthood – its sophistication, worldliness, urbanity, maturity, and experience – which truly is the prime of life."

Reviewer Meghan Daum, an author and op-ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times, weighs in:

"As sweeping as his research is — and perhaps because it is so sweeping — Mintz stumbles at times on examples that are either outdated or just slightly off.

Mintz, although a scholar, doesn’t show himself to be an especially original thinker.

But even though Mintz might not be the most exciting messenger, his message — that there are many ways to wear the mantle of responsible adulthood and that the 1950s model is a mere blip on history’s radar — is deeply necessary and long overdue."

For Fun: 100 Pieces of Advice from 100-Year-Olds

Because doggone it, they've been through it all, and most of them still have smiles to show for it.

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