Patricia Highsmith, “Ripley Under Ground” (1970) – I seem to remember liking the first Ripley book, though it was a few years ago and I don’t remember much past that bare impression. This one, the sequel, was a snoozer. Ripley is enjoying life in a French suburb with a wife, nice house, and fancy art collection, having gotten away scot free with killing and for a time impersonating a dude. He gets in trouble because he’s involved with a ring of art forgers that starts to get rumbled. He impersonates a reclusive artist and also kills a guy and needs to keep the police, his wife, the victim’s wife, and various other interested parties from finding out. Highsmith has been called “the poet of apprehension” and there is a tense mood throughout but the action isn’t very exciting. Ripley puts more effort into planning the shopping with his servant lady than he does in rooking people, which I guess is meant to convey how effortless Ripley is in lying but doesn’t make things more exciting. Are the subsequent Ripleys more worth it? *’
Matthew Karp, “This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy” (2016) – This is part of a new body of historical literature insisting on the essential modernity — arguably an alternative modernity, but a modernity nevertheless — of the antebellum slave system in the American south. Karp focuses on the foriegn policy of slavery. While we associate this with the efforts of the Confederacy to gain foreign recognition, Karp argues persuasively that the most influential diplomatic efforts of the slave power understood the United States, not a separate nation, as its greatest asset. Southern slaveholders dominated the congressional committees that oversaw foreign affairs and the military and were more influential in the diplomatic corps than one might expect. The leading politicians pushing military reform and expansion in the antebellum years were slaveholders, such as Abel Upshur and Jefferson Davis, who Karp argues saw US foreign policy and the policy of their class as one and the same.
The slave south had a foreign policy agenda that stressed a “hemispheric defense of the institution of slavery.” They were overwhelmingly concerned about the stability of their “peculiar institutions” in the South itself and understood its security as being tied in with slavery’s security in the rest of the Americas, particularly in Cuba and Brazil. Karp persuasively argues that while many southerners (and other Americans) desired Cuba and other foriegn territories, for southern slaveholders, maintaining Cuba as a slave state was more important than who directly owned it. Loyalty to the institution fits with what the slaveholders eventually did as an endgame, seceding from a union that ultimately was a second comer, at best. Karp shows how consistently the slave class worked towards its own interest in foreign policy, which when you think about it, makes sense- foreign policy has always been the field of American politics that responds the most to elite pressure and the least to pressure from below. Much of what southern politicians did in foreign policy only makes sense from a perspective of defense of slavery, as when Britain went from abolitionist villain in the 1830s to cotton-consumer potential ally of slavery in the 1850s.
What Karp is trying to do in this book is to force the reader to take a hemispheric and future-oriented perspective on slavery, the one he argues the south actually had. We’re used to thinking of slavery as a continental US question and as organized around defending an institution of the past, not the future, but that’s not how the southerners saw it. It’s hard to include everything in a book and I would have been interested in knowing more how the Republicans or other earlier opponents of the foriegn policy of slavery articulated an alternative foreign policy, but that would have detracted from the focus of the book, I guess. All in all, a fascinating work. ****’
Émile Zola, “The Sin of Abbe Mouret” (1875) (translated from the French by Valerie Minogue) – This was an odd one. The fifth volume in Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, this one has the rough naturalism of the other installments for about half of the book. It begins and ends with impoverished rural France (as the modernization process Eugen Weber describes was just beginning) and the sordid doings of priests and local grandees. Abbe Serge Mouret, a relative of the family created for the series, is a priest of unusual fervor and dedication. He prays and fasts like the world depends on it, cutting off his own manhood (in Zola’s anticlerical view) symbolically to be a helpless child-lover of Mary, all to an empty church and parishioners too busy screwing each other in more ways than one to care.
He eventually prays so hard that we get to the odd middle of the book. He gets sick and his uncle doctor (a sort of hovering authorial presence in the series) takes him to an overgrown estate overseen by two hermits to get better. The first hermit is a societal reject because he still holds to a vulgar version of Enlightenment thought, and the second is his daughter, raised as a true child of nature (not quite Rousseauian- Rousseau thought mostly about boys), innocent, beautiful, free. She nurses Mouret, who loses his memory from the sickness and forgets he’s a priest, back to health. They then take to exploring the grounds, and seemingly half the book is taken up describing the grasses and trees and how the two innocents interacted with them and the childlike joy they take. There’s heavy biblical symbolism here, of course- they go looking for a special tree under which to have sex, and once they find it, the worst elements of Mouret’s former life intrude on their bliss and drag him back to reality. The rest is the inevitable sorrow and corruption of civilization, and someone gets an ear cut off. All in all, interesting in theory but in practice, one of Zola’s less engaging works. **