21 June 2012

Two books, two lives

Generally I only have a few minutes at the end of the day, or (exquisite pleasure!) when I have a seat on the suburban train to or from Moscow, to read books. Occasionally, a book takes over my life, demanding every spare moment. That's just happened with two books in a row, John Lewis Gaddis's George F. Kennan: An American Lifeand Buddy Guy's When I Left Home: My Story(with David Ritz). As sometimes happens, I couldn't help reading the second book in light of the first, despite their apparently dramatic differences.

There are lots of obvious differences. Both books are biographical (Guy's is a co-written autobiography), but the subjects don't seem to have much in common. Kennan is one of the twentieth century's most famous diplomats, as well as a historian and philosopher of applied ethics, and Guy is a musician and entertainer. For most of his life, Kennan practically personified the Establishment, while Buddy Guy grew up in a sharecropping family and, after leaving Louisiana, had to survive years of pistols and knife brawls in the Chicago bar scene to arrive where he is now--among the world's very best, and best known, guitarists. Gaddis writes in impeccable English (but often echoing the wry tone of his subject), while the language of the Guy/Ritz collaboration is informal, conversational, and, well, earthy. Finally, George Kennan died in 2005 at age 101, while Buddy Guy is, at nearly 76 years old, very much alive and active.

What fascinates me are the similarities between the two books. A few are obvious, if superficial: they chronicle men who both traveled all over the world (Kennan's longest-term employer, the State Department, even organized tours for Guy). Both have been in the White House. Both became household names in their respective circles, and both proved to be enormously influential teachers and mentors.

The more important similarities are the ways they both reflect on human weakness, temptation, and spirituality. Both were born into Christian homes, and both took detours. In later years, both re-emphasized the importance of faith but without much pious gloss.

One of the delights of good biographies is revelations of how the the subjects related to their contemporaries, especially contemporaries that we might already know about. Sometimes surprising connections are revealed. We expect to find out how Kennan related to Harriman, Bohlen, George Marshall, Dean Acheson--but might be surprised to find out how consistently Ronald Reagan seemed to pursue courses consistent with Kennan's views. (Kennedy, on the other hand, admired Kennan and flattered him but almost never followed Kennan's concrete advice.)

Buddy Guy, too, has some eye-opening revelations about his teachers and contemporaries. Sometimes he seems torn between wanting to protect a revered mentor such as Muddy Waters and telling the truth about, for example, Muddy's rough treatment of women. His description of long-time performing partner Junior Wells's complex personality (almost two different people, gentle and vicious, especially after a serious knife attack) is very moving. Buddy frequently weaves in accounts of musicians who were crucial to the history of blues but remain under-recognized. (Lonnie Johnson is a great example.)  And I loved reading what he says about B.B. King:
Thing about B.B.--then and now--is his humility. Mama used to talk about a humble heart being a good heart. But in my lifetime I've met few genuinely humble people, especially in the music business, where most everyone gets what John Lee Hooker calls the Big Head. B.B. never had no big head. Even today every conversation with him almost gets me to crying because I feel how sincere he is about his love of people and music.
Buddy is very obviously an artist, while most people would probably describe Kennan as an intellectual. But a recurring theme in both biographies is the land. Both cherished their connections with rural places, with farming. Kennan is more explicit about the dangers of urban consumer-oriented culture with its pervasive individualism and the dazzle of marketing--and was warning about the dangers of environmental destruction decades before ecology became a prominent theme.

It's probably true that any effort to find equivalences between these two books will soon run out of steam. These men were operating in very different circles. Kennan, after all, helped shape the American stance toward the Soviet Union for four decades in language that was so rooted in Christian realism that it defied any kind of glib liberal/conservative, dove/hawk classification. He has the consistency, not of an ideologue, but of a deep ecologist. Some people accused Kennan of having a huge ego, but, privately, nobody was more critical of him than he himself was. Buddy Guy constantly reminds his interviewers that he didn't originate the music, he was lucky enough to inherit it. Anyway, for better or worse, love of Russia and love of the blues are a large part of who I am, so in my own internal universe, when I think about these two great men, I choose to emphasize their kinship.

The popmatters.com review of When I Left Home. And Louis Menand on George F. Kennan: An American Life.

"Russian Summer," a National Geographic photo gallery. "At the dacha, the soul of Russia—and its cultural divide—is on display." Photo #14 is from Elektrostal.

Cherice Bock reports on the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theology Conference, including the epistle.

"Pete Greig talks pain and prayer on national television." (I wrote about his book here.)

Russia and the blues--together for not the first time....

No comments: