ARC Review – Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight

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Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
by David W. Blight

Genre: American History, Biography

Length: 896 Pages

Coming: October 2nd, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

The definitive, dramatic biography of the most important African-American of the nineteenth century: Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became the greatest orator of his day and one of the leading abolitionists and writers of the era.

As a young man Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) escaped from slavery in Baltimore, Maryland. He was fortunate to have been taught to read by his slave owner mistress, and he would go on to become one of the major literary figures of his time. He wrote three versions of his autobiography over the course of his lifetime and published his own newspaper. His very existence gave the lie to slave owners: with dignity and great intelligence he bore witness to the brutality of slavery.

Initially mentored by William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass spoke widely, often to large crowds, using his own story to condemn slavery. He broke with Garrison to become a political abolitionist, a Republican, and eventually a Lincoln supporter. By the Civil War and during Reconstruction, Douglass became the most famed and widely travelled orator in the nation. He denounced the premature end of Reconstruction and the emerging Jim Crow era. In his unique and eloquent voice, written and spoken, Douglass was a fierce critic of the United States as well as a radical patriot. He sometimes argued politically with younger African-Americans, but he never forsook either the Republican party or the cause of black civil and political rights.

In this remarkable biography, David Blight has drawn on new information held in a private collection that few other historian have consulted, as well as recently discovered issues of Douglass’s newspapers. Blight tells the fascinating story of Douglass’s two marriages and his complex extended family. Douglass was not only an astonishing man of words, but a thinker steeped in Biblical story and theology. There has not been a major biography of Douglass in a quarter century. David Blight’s Frederick Douglass affords this important American the distinguished biography he deserves.

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I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not impacted by the publisher. 

While I had of course heard of Frederick Douglass before reading this book, my knowledge of him was spotty at best, consisting mostly of fuzzy, half-remembered elementary school lessons detailing how he cajoled white children into teaching him to read as a young slave. He then went on to become a prominent abolitionist as an adult after escaping slavery. This was the beginning and the end of my knowledge of Douglass.

Frederick-Douglas-reddit.com-colorized-history-1-736x900Blight’s biography brings Douglass into sharp focus, not just as a historical figure, but as a man. The regal looking figure we can see in photos today was once a small boy, treated as property by the Auld family. He was heartbroken when he was emotionally rejected by his mistress, Sophia Auld, who had begun his education before her husband convinced her it was dangerous to educate a slave. He had a granddaughter who liked to braid his hair. His love of music was bordering on the spiritual.

He also, like all of us, had flaws. He may have been unfaithful to his wife. His emphasis on self-reliance was so extreme that it at times felt like a blind spot. He was a self-made man who pulled himself up out of slavery to become a highly influential figure and seemed at times almost disdainful of anyone who couldn’t or wouldn’t do the same. But that single-minded determination was perhaps his defining trait; he fought for equality quite literally up to his dying day. Douglass had a speaking arrangement scheduled for the evening of his death, before a heart attack took him unexpectedly.

“Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.”

Blight’s recounting of the life of Frederick Douglass is intensely researched and thorough. It was not quite as readable as other biographies I’ve read, such as Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton biography, but there’s something to be said for valuing substance over style. Reading this was an infinitely valuable education experience, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in American history and the beginnings of the civil rights movement.

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Review – Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Wife of Alexander Hamilton by Tilar J. Mazzeo

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Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Wife of Alexander Hamilton
by Tilar J. Mazzeo

Genre: Biography, History

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: September 18, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

From the New York Times bestselling author of Irena’s Children comes a comprehensive and riveting biography of the extraordinary life and times of Eliza Hamilton, the wife of founding father Alexander Hamilton, and a powerful, unsung hero in America’s early days. 

Fans fell in love with Eliza Hamilton—Alexander Hamilton’s devoted wife—in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s phenomenal musical Hamilton. But they don’t know her full story. A strong pioneer woman, a loving sister, a caring mother, and in her later years, a generous philanthropist, Eliza had many sides—and this fascinating biography brings her multi-faceted personality to vivid life.

Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of The Wife of Alexander Hamilton follows Eliza through her early years in New York, into the ups and downs of her married life with Alexander, beyond the aftermath of his tragic murder, and finally to her involvement in many projects that cemented her legacy as one of the unsung heroes of our nation’s early days. Featuring Mazzeo’s “impeccable research and crafting” (Library Journal), and perfect for fans of the richly detailed historical books by Ron Chernow and Erik Larson, Eliza Hamilton is the captivating account of the woman behind the famous man.

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five

“Best of wives and best of women.”

This was an immensely readable biography. Mazzeo’s writing style creates the immersive reading experience of a good novel. While this at times requires her to take certain liberties and to speculate (the book opens, for example, with Eliza blushing in response to a letter she received from Alexander Hamilton), she does seem to draw from what is known as much as possible. Eliza’s thoughts and feelings, while not always documented, can often be inferred from letters she exchanged with Alexander and others. All in all, some speculation, within reason, can certainly be forgiven in the service of crafting a fleshed-out image of a woman so long lost to history.

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Portrait of Eliza Hamilton by Ralph Earl. Earl was in debtors’ prison when Eliza sat for this portrait and persuaded other ladies to do the same. The income generated from this allowed Earl to earn enough money to repay his debts and regain his freedom.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the biography is Mazzeo’s treatment of the Maria Reynolds incident, wherein she questions the commonly accepted version of events, made famous once again by the musical Hamilton. The affair is often treated as fact, but Alexander and Eliza’s contemporaries were far from in agreement as to the truth of the matter. Was Alexander simply a cheating husband or was the whole affair a cleverly crafted ruse to cover up the illegal financial activities of which he was suspected at the time?

Mazzeo argues for the latter. I won’t go into detail, as the book will surely handle the material more elegantly than I could here, but one interesting question raised is this: If Alexander had love letters from Mrs. Reynolds to substantiate the affair, as he claimed he did, why would he not produce them? He printed transcriptions of the supposed letters in his pamphlets on the matter, but refused to produce the original documents. Mrs. Reynolds, who vehemently denied the affair, was willing to submit to a handwriting comparison in an attempt to clear her name. Alexander refused. This is just one piece of the puzzle which leads Mazzeo to conclude that Alexander’s real crimes were financial, not romantic.

If I had to name a weakness in this book it would be this: Alexander looms quite large in Mazzeo’s recounting of Eliza’s life. Yes, he was her husband, but Eliza lived to a ripe old age and had half of her life ahead of her at the time of his death, years which were filled with joy, sadness, and endless public works. Eliza was so much more than Alexander’s wife.

However, her accomplishments are by no means completely ignored. The book goes into detail about Eliza’s involvement in founding New York’s first private orphanage, as well as her involvement in public education. Children were Eliza’s passion, particularly orphans, a focus likely sparked by Alexander’s humble origins. Mazzeo paints a portrait of a strong and compassionate woman.

This is a beautiful and well-researched piece of work which shines a well-deserved spotlight on one of US history’s most interesting women. The flowing prose makes this an excellent read for fans of biographies as well as historical fiction, and, of course, fans of Hamilton. 

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and not influenced by the publisher. 

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Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on biographies? Do you prefer a more formal, fact-focused tone, or does speculation on thoughts and feelings of the people involved make for a better reading experience?

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Review – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 
by Rebecca Skloot

Genre: Biography, Science

Length: 370 Pages

Released: February 2, 2010

Blurb via GoodReads: 

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo — to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family — past and present — is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?

Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.

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Henrietta Lacks was one of the unsung heroes of medical science. Rebecca Skloot sought to change that with her book by bringing her name to light.

The format was one of this book’s biggest strengths. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was as much about the author’s research process and bonding with Henrietta’s family as it was about the information she uncovered in the process. Consequently, it creates an overall impression of being on that journey of discovery along with Skloot and a sense of emotional investment in the people involved, especially Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter.

The book is imbued with a sense of respect for the family. Medical scientists and society at large have benefited immensely from research which depended on Henrietta’s cells, and a great deal of financial gain has come from it over the years, profits which were not passed on to her family. Countless medical advances came about because of cells that were taken for research purposes without Henrietta’s consent when she sought treatment for her cancer. Deborah Lacks was deeply troubled by the unwillingness of any researchers to help the family understand the nature of the research involving their mother, as well as the lack of recognition for Henrietta herself,  who remained anonymous for so many years.

Black scientists and technicians, many of them women, used cells from a black woman to help save the lives of millions of Americans, most of them white. And they did so on the same campus—and at the very same time—that state officials were conducting the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a story about the Lacks family, racism, medical science, and, just as importantly, about informed consent. While medical tissue research is undoubtedly a net positive for society as a whole, Skloot brings up troubling issues regarding informed consent and the law’s lack of regard for whether patients may wish to participate in this research. The final chapter of the book explores this issue in a nuanced and thoughtful manner. This was an informative and thought-provoking read.

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