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Fortune's Fool
04-16-2015, 06:09 PM
Post: #11
RE: Fortune's Fool
At last! After 150 years, the first full-fledged biography of John Wilkes Booth, the notorious assassin of America’s greatest and best loved president, Abraham Lincoln, has appeared to sate and even titillate the inquiring minds of historian and history buff alike. We now have a more thorough understanding of Booth that fills much of what was lacking heretofore in the Lincoln Assassination story. Or so claims Booth’s erstwhile modern biographer, historian Terry Alford.

Nearly twenty-five years in the making, Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth (Oxford University Press, 2015), is a prodigious study that fills the gaps in the famous actor’s existence that confirms him as a prime character in American infamy for all time. Lacking a comprehensive collection of papers, the few of which are sadly and seldom revealing to the scholar and reader alike, author Alford was forced to rely on the recollections of those who knew Booth during his lifetime. But, in the end, the meticulous search for Booth materials has proved tremendously rewarding, as Alford separates fact from rumor and legend to reveal what Leopold von Ranke, one of the originators of the original German Ph.D. program of the late nineteenth century, proclaimed as “Geschichte . . . wie es eigenlich gewesen ist” --history as it really was.

Professor Alford traces Booth from birth as the illegitimate ninth child of the actor, Junius Booth, Sr., who was the best-acclaimed Shakespearian of the pre-Civil War period, to his own interpretation known as the 'blood and thunder' version. An eccentric like his father in private life, John Wilkes Booth was reputed to be the handsomest man in America, with a girl (both married and unmarried) in every theater town, with a vicious temper, which often revealed him actually to be a man of very sensitive nature; a man who disliked Abraham Lincoln from his election onward and condemned him as a monarch and tyrant worse than King George III of American Revolution notoriety; a cooperator in 1860, gradually transforming his politics to secession by 1864 and a wish to join the Confederacy in the last ditch, leading to tyrannicide less than a year later, Booth is revealed in all his complexities as a citizen, spy, and political man.
Alford presents Booth as less intelligent than Michael W. Kauffman, who in his American Brutus, sees him as versed enough in conspiracy law to entrap all of his co-conspirators and make their testimony hearsay under law as it was read then, or this reviewer, who in Sic Semper Tyrannis, sees him as familiar with pre-war Southern political philosophy so as to embody it in his undelivered Philadelphia speech of 1860. On the other hand, Professor Alford agrees with Kauffman in that Booth operated more as a lone wolf, rather than an active spy funded and backed by Confederate secret service operatives working out of the massive Rebel program in Canada, as posited by William A. Tidwell, James O. Hall, and David W. Gaddy in their opus, Come Retribution, and dramatized by this reviewer in The Last Confederate Heroes.

Yet for all the excellence that historian Alford has produced in this magisterial volume of the complete or quintessential Booth, something is missing. What is absent is Booth as a completely sane nineteenth century romantic, imbued with commonplace Southern political philosophies and ideas of the agrarian Founding Fathers of the United States before Lincoln changed all that to the new industrialism of the postwar eras. Alford’s Booth is a twenty-first century characterization created by an historian who tries to live up to v. Ranke’s ideal, but just misses the mark.
In reality, Fortune’s Fool is John Wilkes Booth portrayed as a modern politically correct fan of Abraham Lincoln sees him. It used to be said that so much is missing from the Booth life as to really require he be written up as a piece of historical fiction. Many, as revealed by historians Constance Head (“John Wilkes Booth in American Fiction,” Lincoln Herald, 82 [Winter 1980], 455-62) and Steven G. Miller (“John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Assassination in Recent Fiction,” Surratt Courier, 29 [June 2004), 4-9) have done so. As popular historian, Jill Lepore (“Just the Facts, Ma’am: Fake Memoirs, Factual Fictions, and the History of History,” The New Yorker, [March 24, 2008], 79-83) “History matters, but the best novels boast a kind of truth that even the best history books can never claim.”

Alford’s research has filled those gaps in our knowledge. Now we have all the facts we need, but presented in the wrong framework. It is black historian and critic of Lincoln as president, Lerone Bennett, Jr., who provides the reality of current Lincoln scholarship. He points out that there is a veritable modern Lincoln Historical Machine--he calls its advocates Lincolnites or Lincolnologists--that warps most of the historical interpretation of our sixteenth president into an acute case of Lincolnitis, or apotheosis through the Cult of Saint Lincoln.

Bennett and his ideas are too casually dismissed by Lincolnites as “a historical hobby-horse.” (Michael Burkhimer quoting Gabor Boritt in “The Lincoln Assassination as a Rebuttal to the Bennett Thesis,” Surratt Courier, 26 [October 2001], 4-9). But already Fortune’s Fool is praised as being “so deeply researched and persuasively argued that it should stand as the standard portrait for years.” (Harold Holtzer, Wall Street Journal, Bookshelf, March 27, 2015). All deserved praise aside, as Jennifer Schuessler points out in the New York Times (April 14, 2015, p. C1), Alford’s book really does not end the various arguments about Booth’s character, “let alone the larger one over the meaning of Booth’s act.”

That is because, in the end, Alford is essentially writing about Abraham Lincoln, not John Wilkes Booth. As one contemporary put it, “None of you who judged [Booth] knew him.” Unfortunately, in spite of Alford’s admirable study, we still don’t.
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Messages In This Thread
Fortune's Fool - L Verge - 04-06-2015, 04:08 PM
RE: Fortune's Fool - LincolnToddFan - 04-06-2015, 07:07 PM
RE: Fortune's Fool - L Verge - 04-06-2015, 08:24 PM
RE: Fortune's Fool - Susan Higginbotham - 04-07-2015, 07:30 AM
RE: Fortune's Fool - RJNorton - 04-14-2015, 04:52 AM
RE: Fortune's Fool - Eva Elisabeth - 04-14-2015, 06:49 AM
RE: Fortune's Fool - LincolnToddFan - 04-14-2015, 07:49 AM
RE: Fortune's Fool - Rsmyth - 04-16-2015, 10:16 AM
RE: Fortune's Fool - Wild Bill - 04-16-2015 06:09 PM
RE: Fortune's Fool - Gene C - 04-16-2015, 07:21 PM
RE: Fortune's Fool - L Verge - 04-17-2015, 03:25 PM
RE: Fortune's Fool - Thomas Thorne - 04-17-2015, 01:04 AM
RE: Fortune's Fool - L Verge - 04-17-2015, 12:02 PM
RE: Fortune's Fool - LincolnToddFan - 04-17-2015, 02:00 PM
RE: Fortune's Fool - L Verge - 04-24-2015, 11:02 AM
RE: Fortune's Fool - Susan Higginbotham - 04-25-2015, 02:03 PM
RE: Fortune's Fool - STS Lincolnite - 04-25-2015, 02:17 PM
RE: Fortune's Fool - Susan Higginbotham - 04-25-2015, 03:39 PM
RE: Fortune's Fool - LincolnToddFan - 04-24-2015, 11:36 AM
RE: Fortune's Fool - L Verge - 04-24-2015, 12:36 PM
RE: Fortune's Fool - LincolnToddFan - 04-24-2015, 01:10 PM
RE: Fortune's Fool - L Verge - 04-24-2015, 02:31 PM
RE: Fortune's Fool - Gene C - 04-24-2015, 03:59 PM
RE: Fortune's Fool - LincolnToddFan - 04-24-2015, 04:14 PM
RE: Fortune's Fool - Gene C - 04-25-2015, 05:11 PM
RE: Fortune's Fool - RJNorton - 07-28-2015, 08:27 AM
RE: Fortune's Fool - richard petersen - 08-04-2015, 08:27 AM
RE: Fortune's Fool - LincolnToddFan - 08-07-2015, 02:00 PM
RE: Fortune's Fool - LincolnToddFan - 08-12-2015, 11:58 AM

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