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Book Review: Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty

Writing as “a historian who has devoted four decades to the study of Virginia” and an author striving to “do his best”, Richmond, Virginia scholar Jon Kukla—who has directed research and publishing at the Library of Virginia, authored history books and run Virginia’s Red Hill/Patrick Henry National Memorial—accounts for the one major American Revolutionary who “never held national office” in his biography Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty (published today by Simon & Schuster).

Presuming an audience with serious interest in the Virginia lawyer, planter and American radical who defiantly proclaimed “Give me liberty, or give me death!”, Kukla immerses the reader in a dense, detailed and exhaustively factual biography. Neither exactly a straight chronological narrative nor a predominantly political philosophical reckoning, Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty instead goes for completeness in providing the central facts of Patrick Henry’s career as an orator, thinker and founder of the American republic.

Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty is impressive. Do not, however, expect or look forward to a portrait of the whole man. Kukla emphasizes essential points of Patrick Henry’s remarkable life, career and achievements—most impressively, offering deeper or newer details on Henry’s thoughts, ideas and writings—and does not get into the personal life, such as children and marriage. Patches of Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty are dull, dry and laboriously overdone with non-essential facts, names and information. But if history, and, in particular, great mythical tales of American history, entices your intellect, most of the reading is page-turning.

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History earns my most intense​ readership and Jon Kukla’s meticulously researched volume, with over 100 pages of notes, acknowledgements and preface, brings newly disclosed documents and insights to this patriot’s role in the radical, grass-roots movement to break free from British statism, declare independence and create an American republic.

“[Patrick] Henry was of medium build and average height, with deep-set but piercing steel-blue eyes, a dark complexion, and strong features,” Kukla writes. “His face was described not as handsome but as ‘agreeable and full of intelligence and interest.” Henry once sported a bright red cape when elected to public office. Indeed, he became known for rampant individualism, which may explain why he does not typically get his historical due as an influential Founding Father. Absorbing and continuing threads include Patrick Henry’s abiding friendship with George Washington—Virginia’s first governor and America’s first president—despite the pair’s principled dispute over the Constitution.

Young Patrick Henry and his brothers had grown up hunting, fishing and exploring the countryside, Kukla notes, and his philosophy apparently formed relatively early in life. Virginian Henry, indulging himself in nature, studied and guided himself in contemplating books, arts and Western ideas. “After breaking his collarbone at the age of twelve,” the author writes, “Henry during his convalescence taught himself to play the flute, though only for his private enjoyment. He was also an excellent performer on the violin.” Henry, like Thomas Jefferson, “spent hours ‘lying with his back upon a bed’ reading Laurence Sterne’s popular and risque comic novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Miguel Cervantes’s Don Quixote or Daniel Defoe’s Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.” Friends described Patrick Henry’s disposition as “benevolent, humane, mild, quiet, and thoughtful.”

As an adult, Patrick Henry did own slaves even as he denounced slavery, which he believed was detrimental to everyone, causing white workers to “despise honest physical labor”, and Kukla seeds the volume with a running and carefully integrated account of slavery. He does so as it relates to his subject. So, the reader is more likely to come away with an objective grasp of why early advocates for slavery’s abolition, such as Patrick Henry, failed to follow through. Among complicating factors are Haiti’s violent slave rebellion, which set the cause of abolitionism back, an inter-colonial slave trade and, not insignificantly, the looming War for Independence, which appears to have all but derailed serious consideration for abolition.

Patrick Henry emerges as a compelling man of principle. Henry taught himself the law, seeking guidance from an attorney whom he considered honest, who “won [Patrick Henry’s] admiration for his strict refusal to defend clients he thought were wrong.” Soon, Henry built a profitable legal practice, increasing his caseload from 176 in 1760 to 493 in 1763, according to Patrick Henry’s ledgers.

Yet his ability to make money was inextricably tied to the issue of the British government’s control of nearly every aspect of colonial lives and Henry’s lifelong pursuit of happiness fuels his activism for creating a society based on individual rights. When the British crown rejected the Two-Penny Act of 1758, which Henry considered a perfectly logical law, Henry echoed political philosopher John Locke, denouncing the British king’s disallowance by noting that a king who fails to protect his people “forfeits all right to his subjects’ obedience.” After accounting for Henry’s formative three weeks in Williamsburg, where he witnessed Virginia’s first opposition, both public and private, to the government’s imposition of stamp duties on the colonies firsthand, Kukla takes on the facts and details of the Stamp Act of 1765, which, like ObamaCare, was concealed from the public and presented in the press as a fait accompli weeks after enactment, a tactic which would inform Patrick Henry’s later political methodology.

Henry’s blistering opposition to the Stamp Act forged his reputation as an American radical for liberty. In fact, Kukla reports that colonial newspapers reprinted versions of Patrick Henry’s Stamp Act resolutions during the summer of 1765, galvanizing resistance among the colonial population. The Massachusetts governor warned the British that Henry’s proposals were proving to be “an Alarm bell to the disaffected.”

And Henry, who celebrated Hugo Grotius and others as “illustrious writers” and benevolent spirits who “held up the torch of science to a benighted world,” took painstaking inventory of the toll each act of injustice took on himself and his fellow Virginians. Kukla writes that even Patrick Henry was shocked when the Stamp Act’s details came to light; Henry’s legal practice was subject to 40 government fees on every document, including wills, deeds, bills of sale, even college diplomas. The Stamp Act imposed taxes, too, on Virginia’s newspapers, almanacs, calendars, and pamphlets. A fellow attorney and Virginia burgess exclaimed: “Every kind of business transacted on paper is taxed!”

The Virginian fought the king’s tyranny with words, ideas—and oration. George Mason wrote that Henry was “the most powerful speaker I ever heard.” Mason attested that “[e]very word he says not only engages but commands the attention; and your passions are no longer your own when he addresses them. But his eloquence is the smallest part of his merit. He is in my opinion the first man upon this continent, as well in abilities as public virtues.” Congressman Silas Deane gushed: “Patrick Henry is the compleatest Speaker I ever heard…but in a Letter I can give You no Idea of the Music of his voice, or the highwrought, yet Natural elegance of his stile.”

Patrick Henry’s oratorical style, like his savvy political, business and intellectual sense, was bred by thoughtful and methodical study of facts, context and analysis of what making a nation based on individual rights would necessitate, mean and entail. While visiting Philadelphia, Patrick Henry roamed bookstores, purchasing Thomas Leland’s edition of The Orations of Demosthenes on Occasions of Public Deliberation (London, 1763), one of many books about oratory Kukla writes that Henry used to improve his public speaking. The book bears Henry’s printed bookplate, signature, and his handwritten notation: Philadelphia 1774. But Kukla observes that Henry’s copy also contains a dog-eared corner of a page at this passage of particular interest to Virginia’s great orator: “When we take up arms against the Barbarian,” Demosthenes proclaimed about 354 BC, “we take them up for our country, for our lives, for our customs, for our liberty, and all such sacred rights.”

Henry “electrified the whole house”, Kukla writes, recapturing Henry’s legendary lines delivered on Tuesday, September 6, 1774, according to delegates’ notes of the congressional debates, that “The Distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders, are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American.” Kukla adds that “Patrick Henry’s oratorical skills were impressive, of course, but the delegates placed greater weight on his ideas.” Years later, John Adams told Jefferson that, in that Congress of 1774, “there was not one member, except Patrick Henry, who appeared to me sensible of…the Pinnacle on which he stood, and had candour and courage enough to acknowledge it.”

With a chosen pen name Scipio—”a pseudonym honoring the Roman patriot and general praised by Cicero as an exemplary orator and leader”—Partick Henry railed against Britain’s “bloody massacre” at Boston, reminding the king that “the breath of a tyrant blasts and poisons every thing, changes blessings and plenty into curses and misery, great cities into gloomy solitudes, and their rich citizens into beggars and vagabonds.”

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Filling Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty with such stirring words, usually grounding the speeches, excerpts and moments in their proper context, Kukla lays Patrick Henry’s life and ascent bare, demonstrating that the brilliant agitator for an American revolution and nation based on man’s rights was often biting and brave. That he once “sneered” to appeasers: “Shall we try “humble supplication”? That he may have saved the Midwest from British rule during the American Revolution with a band of elite forces, battled malaria and wrote his will entirely in his own hand. That believer Patrick Henry had concerns about the growing influence of deism and was not strictly for separating religion and state. That President Washington twice considered appointing him to the Supreme Court and once to succeed James Monroe as ambassador to France. That he wrote that he “detests” paper money. That Henry had 17 children and nearly 80 slaves when he died of stomach cancer at the age of 63.

Or that the text of Patrick Henry’s 1765 resolutions against the Stamp Act were a starting point of the American Revolution.

But Kukla also recounts, sometimes too generally or, conversely, with too much detail, that Patrick Henry, who was also a military colonel in the Revolutionary War, was intensely interested in and had a decent understanding of military history and strategy. Col. Henry created Virginia’s navy and, Kukla notes: “By the end of the Revolution, the legacy of Patrick Henry’s navy comprised two major shipyards and a dozen smaller ones as well as scores of warships—brigs and brigantines, schooners and pilot boats, and cruisers and row galleys—all manned by seven hundred officers, sailors and marines.”

To this end, Henry was loved by his enlisted men, who at one point threatened to quit and refused to serve under any other commander. But what also comes through in Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty is that Patrick Henry was a deep and serious thinker, not merely a man of high ideals, inspiring speeches and decisive action, who was capable of life-affirming insight and introspection. For instance, Henry held that “[m]aturity grew not from “uninterrupted tranquility” but from hardships that “compel an exertion of mental power…Adversity toughens manhood—and the characteristic of the good or the great man is not that he has been exempted from the evils of life, but that he has surmounted them.”

Surmount them Patrick Henry apparently, did, too, as his wife Sarah, his “beloved companion”, “lost her reason” and showed signs of mental instability, dying in early 1775. Henry put his Scotchtown plantation up for sale in August of 1777. He sold it the following year for “eight times the purchase price, considerably advancing his fortune.”

Patrick Henry, whom Ayn Rand named a Midwestern university after in her epic novel of ideas, Atlas Shrugged, uttered his most famous line on March 20, 1775. Jon Kukla alludes to it in the title of his book’s Chapter 14: Liberty or Death: “When at last Henry took the floor, eyewitnesses describe him as starting “calmly,” as was his practice…Henry warned that his opinions were “very opposite to theirs.” …Henry wanted Virginians to face the whole truth, acknowledge the worst, and provide for it. Henry’s speech, as one distinguished historian observed, “transformed resistance into revolution.”

How exactly comes into sharp focus as Kukla recaptures Henry’s glorious American moment:

There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable—and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.” When Henry paused, murmurs of “Peace! Peace!” emanated from the pews where some of his timid colleagues sat, punctuating the dramatic moment and plodding one of history’s greatest orators toward the culmination of his most famous speech. “Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace,” Henry answered. echoing the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, “but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field!” he exclaimed, affirming once again Virginia’s policy of steadfast unanimity with the other colonies. “Why stand we here idle?” “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” He paused again, lifted his eyes and hands toward heaven and prayed, “Forbid it, Almighty God!—I know not what course others may take, but as for me…give me liberty, or give me death!” Then as his voice echoed through the church and his audience watched in stunned silence, Henry raised an ivory letter opener as if it were a dagger and plunged it toward his chest in imitation of the Roman patriot Cato. The church fell silent. “Men looked beside themselves,” one listener recalled. Another listener, standing outside a window after failing to find a seat inside, felt overwhelmed by Henry’s oratory. “Let me be buried at this spot,” exclaimed Edward Carrington, the younger brother of a Charlotte County delegate.”

Kukla notes that the British redcoats moved to disarm colonists at Concord and Lexington three weeks later, in what Ralph Waldo Emerson termed the shot heard ’round the world, setting off the fireworks that sparked an American Revolution.

For his part, Patrick Henry, convinced that the Constitution would result in a consolidated government that, when it proved oppressive to Virginians, could not be altered, opposed ratifying the Constitution. He opposed We the People, which he held was presumptuous, insisting that We the states was the proper phrase. “The chief aim of government, he insisted, was neither the promotion of trade nor imperial visions of becoming “a great and powerful people” but the protection of personal liberties. “Liberty ought to be the direct end of your government.” But this does not mean that Henry was an advocate of states’ rights as that term is widely understood. He wrote that “the dissolution of the Union is most abhorrent to my mind. The first thing I have at heart is American liberty: the second thing is American union.”

Nearing conclusion, Kukla observes that Patrick Henry warned that “The Constitution squints toward monarchy” and that he cautioned that “Your president may easily become king,” asking: “What will then become of you and your rights?”

In the chapter Last Call, Kukla largely lets the great American hero Patrick Henry have the floor, recalling his words: “If I am asked what is to be done when a people feel themselves intolerably oppressed, my answer is ready—overturn the government. But … wait at least until some infringement is made upon your rights that cannot otherwise be redressed; for … you may bid adieu forever to representative government.”

Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty ​is an excellent and important biography of the patriot Patrick Henry—who inspired the American to rational action for individual rights in this land’s darkest hours—and wrote:

Reader! whoever thou art, remember this,

and in thy Sphere, practice Virtue thyself,

and encourage it in others.

P. HENRY

Event Review: Festival of Books

The 22nd annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is a unique combination of book sales, signings and promotional events. I’ve attended for years and, still, I enjoy it while acknowledging its deficiencies. My top complaint is the same as always: volunteers, event staff, venue staff and security are poorly equipped and trained to direct the over 150,000 people who come to the University of Southern California campus. Event maps are lacking. One volunteer in a festival information booth gave me the wrong directions to the Salvatori Computer Science Center, not to be confused with an arts and letters building donated by a Salvatori with that name emblazoned on it. Getting around the festival, important if you favor lectures and panel discussions as I do, gets worse every year (read my thoughts on last year’s festival here).

Once at the destination, which could be anywhere around USC’s wonderful campus near downtown Los Angeles, you’re often afforded outstanding opportunities to listen, learn, ponder, explore and examine the world of books and ideas. I spent much of the two-day weekend event roaming around booths, visiting small university presses, independent booksellers, university writing programs, USC’s many schools’ showcases and booths for various authors, theaters, publications, schools and products, from Atheists United, Titanium sponsor Acura dealers of Southern California and the Ayn Rand Institute to author Zoe Summer and YaYa’s Creole Products. Add music—the Trojans’ marching band is always a favorite—cooking and kids’ areas, and C-Span’s Booknotes interviews and scads of other contests, prizes and free samples, from books and prints to power bars and bags (which come in handy with California’s plastic bag ban, which amounts to a tax) and the book fair truly is a festival. Subtract the presence of book publishers that dominated early festivals, however, and there are fewer and fewer books, especially new, major books and authors.

I had previously attended a conversation with author Glenn Frankel at an event at the Autry Museum of the American West in LA’s Griffith Park several weeks ago. His book about High Noon and what he and many others in Hollywood refer to as the blacklist (Hollywood’s highly touted 1950s’ blackballing of presumed Communists or Soviet sympathizers, not the list of unmade scripts) makes Frankel, who won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting and worked for the Washington Post, an attractive guest speaker. So, I already knew that Frankel, who also taught journalism at Stanford and the University of Texas, knows his subject well. He’d told the Autry audience, for instance, that High Noon was shot in 32 days on a low budget, that screenwriter Carl Foreman was called to testify to a congressional committee about his membership in the Communist Party and that star Gary Cooper was the son of British immigrants, that he may have been impacted by childhood visits to Montana’s state house, where he saw a painting of Lewis and Clark, and that he was not very political.

When I saw that Frankel was on a book festival panel on classic Hollywood, I decided to attend. Knowing that, at the Autry, he had dropped the context that the United States was under threat of attack by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), something that people who talk about the Hollywood blacklist usually do, and that we know that the Soviets funded subversive efforts to undermine the U.S. government, I wanted to hear a detailed analysis of classic Hollywood, including the blacklist, through panel discussion.

Instead, the panel was the opposite. Moderated by USC writing instructor, Newsday political cartoonist and author M.G. Lord, who wrote a book on Elizabeth Taylor titled The Accidental Feminist, the panel was a barrage of uncorroborated claims and arbitrary assertions about the blacklist which turned into a political rant against Trump and conservatives with hardly any discussion of classic Hollywood. Author Jon Lewis, a movie professor at Oregon State University, declared that Trump’s election means democracy is dead in America (seriously). Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times film critic, whom apparently everyone calls Kenny, barely spoke about classic film, though he did mention being raised as an Orthodox Jew. Frankel, who is both extremely knowledgeable and fundamentally mistaken in his book’s assertion that Ayn Rand is to blame for what he sees as the injustice of a Hollywood blacklist, gave the most substantial classic Hollywood analysis. Others went for laughs and digs at Trump or the blacklist.

To her credit, Karen Maness, a scenic artist and co-author of The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop and painting instructor for the University of Texas Department of Theatre and Dance and scenic art supervisor at Texas Performing Arts, gave very interesting facts and insights about classic movies’ backdrops.

The classic movies discussion was disappointing but a panel on writing short stories was worse, despite efforts by PEN Center USA literary programmer, author and moderator Libby Flores. Given the team’s credentials, I was astonished that no one really talked about writing short stories. Channelle Benz, who earned her MFA at Syracuse University, has published short stories in The American Reader and is the recipient of an O. Henry Prize. Author Dana Johnson is an English professor at USC and winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Brooklyn writer Rebecca Schiff graduated from Columbia University’s MFA program and her stories have appeared in The Guardian. Deb Olin Unferth, who writes in Austin, Texas, was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award and her work has appeared in Harper’s, the Paris Review, and Tin House. So I was looking forward to a detailed examination of writing short stories. The panel started late and veered into the writers’ rambling thoughts on why they are fascinated by “the color of blood” and admissions and confessions of personal tastes and idiosyncrasies. When I asked if they have an explicit theme in mind when they write a story, only Schiff answered and she didn’t say much. No one else spoke.

Unferth was the most entertaining short stories panelist, using humor to lighten the dense discussion, which did not include mention of a single writing habit. Unferth, who told the audience about a story she wrote in which a shooter contemplates whether to gun down a child at the top of a hill, was asked about the most memorable reader response to her writing. She made the audience laugh when she admitted that a blogger once posted—and apparently kept posting—about how he hated one of her stories, which he wrote was a downer that kept dragging him down. Imagine that.

When Flores asked everyone to name the first story to make an impression, no one could think of a single story to name. At some point, Schiff did manage to credit Kurt Vonnegut with the advice to “make your character want something—even if it’s just a glass of water.”

Titles among their material might have been a cautionary clue that they aren’t terribly interested in breaking down the writing, let alone editing and publishing, process. Benz is the author of The Man Who Shot Out My Eye is Dead. Johnson’s newest book is titled In the Not Quite Dark: Stories. Schiff’s latest book is called The Bed Moved.

Easily the most stimulating panel came late in the festival on Sunday. Whereas the short story writers gave the impression that writing is mysterious, magical and indecipherable, the writers on the “From Page to Screen” panel stressed the opposite idea.

Panelists included Brian McGreevy, author and screenwriter (and co-creator of AMC’s The Son with Pierce Brosnan), who was a James Michener Fellow at the University of Texas. His latest novel is The Lights. Also on board: novelist Tod Goldberg, who wrote novels based on USA Network’s Burn Notice and co-authored the Hammett Prize finalist Gangsterland, for which he’s writing a sequel, Gangster Nation, scheduled for publication this fall; Los Angeles writer Pamela Ribon who recently co-wrote Disney’s Moana and former Dark Shadows actress Lara Parker, author of three novels based on NBC’s cult soap opera, who attended Vassar College, graduated from Rhodes College in Memphis with a BA in philosophy and received her MFA in creative writing from LA’s Antioch University. The moderator, USC writing instructor Richard Rayner, who’s written nine books, including an LA crime history, A Bright and Guilty Place, and an interesting article on Rudyard Kipling, liked to talk more than he liked to let the panelists talk.

When they did, the page-to-screen writers were hilariously insightful and incisive, generously sharing their insecurities, showing their battle scars and being utterly candid in every detail about their writing. Contrary to the painfully pretentious short stories panel, these writers were quite self-aware and purposeful in trying to help the audience grasp the hard work and wrenching business of writing. They fed off of Goldberg’s delightful banter with Ribon, which was at once politically incorrect and perfectly suited to the occasion, delivering with good humor the necessary tips, tools and knowledge to manage Hollywood’s often anti-conceptual handling—more like belittling—of the writer. Goldberg wisely explained that he knows his limits (he didn’t put it this way) by focusing on prose writing. McGreevy had said something similar.

Everything Tod Goldberg said, and he is enormously successful, and, not coincidentally, decent, kind and gracious in person, tracks to not letting the pain of pursuing a livelihood in writing go too deep down into your soul. In his own introverted way, McGreevy, too, let the audience know how to let off steam and cope with adversity in the potentially ruinous page to screen process, alluding to horror stories while delivering a blistering breakdown of the term “showrunner” as a total lie. McGreevy, who explicitly embraced writing’s solitude and said that he really doesn’t like spending a lot of time with people, explained that he studied the creative process from a primarily different orientation—that of the perspective of those titans of the technology industry. He said he read many of their books on being productive and gained real value. He also encouraged writers to take breaks often to give detachment and distance to the material (my writing class students may recognize this particular writing lesson).

Parker shot down the moderator’s attempt to credit her acting with any meaningful tie-in to her writing, crediting her own reading of great works of horror literature, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula to more recent novels and, finally, her decision to mimic the structure and approach of Daphne Du Maurier (Rebecca, Jamaica Inn). She derided the box office bomb movie version starring Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins (“Tim Burton is not interested in story”, she said) and, having played a villainess, the witch, she pointed out that the franchise Dark Shadows is a supernatural thriller rooted in serious, universal themes of life and death through gothic romanticism. Asked by Rayner after she griped about having to deliver bad lines as an actress to name the worst line, Parker fingered The Six Million Dollar Man on ABC, in which she played Col. Steve Austin’s love interest who told him at the end of the weekly episode that: “There will always be a candle buring for you in the window, Steve.” To which Mr. Goldberg deadpanned, a moment after audience laughter subsided: “Was this during the Civil War?”

All of which only made this writer want to read their books.