Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Life of Thomas More or American Scoundrel

The Life of Thomas More

Author: Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd's The Life of Thomas More is a masterful reconstruction of the life and imagination of one of the most remarkable figures of history. Thomas More (1478-1535) was a renowned statesman; the author of a political fantasy that  gave a name to a literary genre and a worldview (Utopia); and, most famously, a Catholic martyr and saint.

Born into the professional classes, Thomas More applied his formidable intellect and well-placed connections to become the most powerful man in England, second only to the king. As much a work of history as a biography, The Life of Thomas More gives an unmatched portrait of the everyday, religious, and intellectual life of the early sixteenth century. In Ackroyd's hands, this renowned "man for all seasons" emerges in the fullness of his complex humanity; we see the unexpected side of his character--such as his preference for bawdy humor--as well as his indisputable moral courage.

Andrew Sullivan

This is the first biography of More to have absorbed the small revolution in Reformation scholarship of the last 20 years...and is able to see England, through the mists of Protestant and Whig propaganda, as one of the most authentically Cahtolic countries in the history of Europe. -- The New York Times Book Review

The New Yorker

This superb biography does more than narrate the life of the Lord Chancellor who was beheaded and later canonized for refusing to accept Henry VIII as head of the church. It describes the London More knew, the ferment of humanism to which he contributed, and the contemporary appeal of Catholicism. It also portrays an archetypal zealot: More denied heretics their rights of conscience, but later pleaded his own conscience without ever glimpsing the parallel between himself and the Protestants he had executed.

Time Magazine

Brilliantly conceived.

The Wall Street Journal

Sensitive [and] well-informed.

The Boston Globe

Wonderfully vivid.


Brilliantly conceived....Ackroyd's vividly human More is...imperfect yet inspiring.

The New Yorker


Kirkus Reviews

A vividly evocative portrait of the lawyer and statesman who was 'the King's good servant, but God's first,' from award- winning biographer and novelist Ackroyd (Blake, 1996; T.S. Eliot, 1984). Thomas More was born in 1479 in Milk Street, in what is now the center of London's financial district, to Agnes and John More, a tradesman-turned-lawyer. Thomas would be one of the great intellects of his time, and Ackroyd gives particular attention to young More's rare and prolonged education: his apprenticeship at the court of the learned Archbishop and Chancellor John Morton of Canterbury, his grounding in the liberal arts at Oxford University, and his legal education at New Inn and Lincoln's Inn. More's upbringing and education, Ackroyd shows, left their permanent imprint upon him: His extensive training in dialectical logic served him well at the bar and on the bench, his time with Archbishop Morton made him familiar with the world of prelates and statecraft, and his Latin and literary training fitted him for his career as a humanist. Ackroyd vibrantly evokes the devout London in which More lived, where even successful lawyers meditated on life's transience and participated in endless rounds of prayer and ritual. He also gives an intimate picture of More's affectionate relations with his family and tells the familiar story of More's rise to favor in the court of Henry VIII, his friendship with Erasmus, his tenure as lord chancellor, and his fall from grace as the crisis of the king's divorce of Catherine of Aragon worsened. Ultimately, More's constancy to his church outweighed his obeisance to the king: Ackroyd gives what amounts to a transcript of the trial in whichMore refused to endorse Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn, and narrates his imprisonment in the Tower of London and execution in 1535. A limpidly written and superbly wrought portrait of a complex hero who was truly, as his friend Erasmus stated, 'omnium horarum homo,' a 'man for all seasons.'

New interesting textbook: Escasso para Manequins

American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles

Author: Thomas Keneally

On the last Sunday of February 1859, Dan Sickles, a charming young congressman from New York, murdered his good friend Philip Barton Key (son of Francis Scott Key) - who was also his wife's lover - in Washington's Lafayette Square. The shooting took place directly across the street from the White House, the home of Sickles's friend and protector, President James Buchanan. Sickles turned himself in; political friends in New York's Tammany Hall machinery, including the dynamic criminal lawyer James Brady, quickly gathered around. While his beautiful young wife was banned from public life and shunned by society, Dan Sickles was acquitted.

American Scoundrel is the story of this powerful mid-nineteenth-century politician and inveterate womanizer, whose irresistible charms and rock-solid connections not only allowed him to get away with murder - literally - but also paved the way to a stunning career.

Book Magazine

The lurid life of Dan Sickles—a notorious nineteenth-century libertine who murdered his wife's lover and somehow got away with it—could have inspired a compelling historical novel. But Keneally, author of the Booker Prize-winning Schindler's List, presents Sickles' story in a tone so stuffy that it fails to capitalize on the material. A flamboyant footnote to American history, Sickles was a New York congressman who flaunted his affairs with prostitutes, was a protégé of President James Buchanan and a confidante of Abraham Lincoln (whose wife he was rumored to have seduced), and became a controversial Civil War general. Society permitted Sickles to indulge what Keneally terms his "disordered hungers," yet wouldn't forgive his young wife, Teresa, for her affair with Philip Barton Key (son of Francis Scott). "Younger male visitors became moonstruck over her superior gifts of body and temperament," writes Keneally, who himself seems to moon over the ill-fated wife. Keneally fails to get under the skin of either his subject or any of the book's other crucial figures. He makes adultery and murder seem surprisingly dull.
—Don McLeese

Publishers Weekly

Obviously intrigued by a minor character in his previous nonfiction title, The Great Shame, Keneally has written a largely fascinating biography of Tammany politician and Civil War general Dan Sickles. Sickles was famous in his time both as the cold-blooded killer of his wife's lover, the son of Francis Scott Key, and as the insubordinate commander who defied orders at Cemetery Ridge, instigating a still-raging debate among military scholars about whether his regiment's actions "won or nearly lost the war." The book's apt title suggests its major drawback: Sickles's mercurial charm and courage in battle notwithstanding, his flaws as a flagrant adulterer and a mendacious and neglectful husband and father make him a difficult subject; evidence of his violent temper and ill-disguised egotism further alienate the reader's interest. By his own admission, Keneally's sympathies lie with Sickles's wife, Teresa, whose temptation into adultery with federal district attorney Philip Barton Key was a direct result of her congressman husband's neglect. Her life was ruined by the scandal, whereas Sickles was acquitted of murder and remains a lionized figure. With the Clinton sex scandals in recent memory, it's ironic to read of the marital morality of the mid-19th century, and how a relatively short time ago, the double standard regarding the position of women and the obsession with personal honor could condone murder. Once past the dramatic events of Sickles's revenge and court trial, the narrative loses its momentum. In order to describe Sickles's further career in the military, Keneally is forced to condense and summarize Civil War history. The bifurcated narrative retains its intrinsic interest, however, since Keneally's sure grasp of the political, social and historical details defines an era, and the panache of his prose, even if it sometimes veers into sentimental excess in describing Teresa's plight, remains as seductive as ever. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Library Journal

The author of Schindler's List tells the real-life story of New York Congressman Dan Sickles, who in 1859 murdered his best friend (and his wife's lover), was acquitted, and rose to fame as a Union general. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Kirkus Reviews

Veteran novelist and historian Keneally (The Great Shame) examines the loves and intrigues of one of America's most colorful rogues. Born into an old New York family, Dan Sickles (1820-1914) was a brash politician with a reputation for headstrong action, fast women, and unpaid debts. As a young man, he joined Tammany Hall and prospered as an attorney with all the right connections. He also carried on a brazen affair with flamboyant prostitute Fanny White and even took her along when he was called to London as a diplomat in 1853, despite having recently married 15-year-old debutante Teresa Bagioli. In 1856, Sickles was elected to Congress; he and Teresa almost immediately became prominent in Washington society. He threw himself into the political tumult surrounding slavery and secession and made enemies as readily as he made friends. His neglected young wife was drawn into a romantic liaison with a popular attorney, who was shot dead by the outraged Sickles in early 1859. He was acquitted in a much-publicized trial but remained forever tainted by the case's notoriety. Using his Tammany influences and his friendship with Lincoln, he become a Union colonel and later a general. At Gettysburg, Sickles ignored an order from commander George Meade and moved his own troops ahead of other Union forces on the battlefield. Whether this independent decision helped win the battle or recklessly endangered the Union cause was debated hotly at the time, although Sickles lost a leg in the battle and was regarded as a hero. Returning to Europe as a diplomat after the war, he conducted an affair with deposed Spanish monarch Queen Isabella II and participated in a bold effort to convince Spain to sell Cuba to the US. Sickles died at 94, a grandfatherly legend who, in Keneally's view, "got away with it all." The captivating tale of a charming opportunist whose ambition and moral hypocrisy mirror those of mid-19th-century America.

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