In my high school and college years, I read a lot of books by and about the Puritans. These were English Protestants who were first called “puritan” in a pejorative sense because of their stance that the Church of England had capitulated too much to Rome, and many among them followed the teachings of John Calvin. Their separatist nature was one of many factors that led significant numbers of Puritans to emigrate to the American colonies. Among the most famous of these colonists was Jonathan Edwards, an influential eighteenth-century preacher.
Puritan writers were fervent, earnest believers who urged their readers to piety. And the books about these Puritans to which I was exposed held them up as role models, in some cases to an extreme. The general theme was that these people were closer to God than we are in modern life, and the closer we modeled our relationships and daily activities after theirs, the better off we were spiritually.
What I didn’t understand in my early encounters with the Puritans was that their writings were ideals, the way they thought life should be lived in relationship to God. Which is not the same thing as how they actually lived—not because they were insincere, but because they were no more consistent in matching their beliefs to their actions than anyone else is. This is something that the writers of the books about the Puritans should have stressed—but the ones I read were too infatuated with the same ideals and therefore perpetuated my false impression. More objective books certainly existed; I just hadn’t encountered them yet in my particular community.
I have since come to read history and theology very differently, and I no longer have a romantic view of the Puritans. But sometimes early impressions are hard to root out, buried as they are under the strata of ideas formed over time. The only way to reexamine these ideas is to take up the subject again from other points of view and let them wrestle in the back of your mind until the inconsistencies shake loose and come to the surface.
I wasn’t specifically looking to do any more reading on colonial America or Jonathan Edwards, but I was intrigued when I saw Ava Chamberlain’s newest book, The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle: Marriage, Murder, and Madness in the Family of Jonathan Edwards. I was familiar with Chamberlain’s work as an Edwards scholar (for personal reasons, I’ve read far more than my share about him), and I was surprised to learn there had been a number of scandals in the family. That’s when a light went off that this was one of those areas where I might need to challenge my assumptions.
So I dove in. And sure enough, her retelling of Elizabeth Tuttle’s life was not only a fascinating story, but clarified a lot of details about marriage, family and mental illness in colonial America. Though I had a complaint about form, I gave it a positive review over at The Discarded Image:
Those who recognize the name Elizabeth Tuttle know her only as the paternal grandmother of colonial theologian Jonathan Edwards, a woman her grandson was raised to forget because of her alleged failings as a colonial goodwife. Yet this same woman, two centuries later, was paraded by leaders of the eugenics movement as the paragon of genetic material, a woman whose descendants include an unusually high number of intelligentsia. And in between those wildly different portraits of her lie nearly 200 years of forgotten silence.
So who was the real Elizabeth Tuttle?
What if? is such a tantalizing question, especially when asked in the form of an alternate history. As soon as I read the description of Enid Shomer’s debut novel, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, advertised in The New Yorker as an alternate history bringing together Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert, I added it to my library hold list. And since it turned out to be a thrilling adventure driven by two compelling personalities, I had to review it for The Discarded Image.
Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale both toured the Nile in 1850. No evidence suggests that they met during their excursions, but in The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, Enid Shomer imagines that they did. That both were wealthy Europeans requiring substantial provisioning makes it possible, if not probable, that they encountered one another somewhere along the journey.
What makes this potential encounter so fascinating, as Shomer imagines it, is that these two people are so unalike, their friendship so unlikely. These differences are the alchemy that conjures a brief but intense friendship responsible for launching both parties on the trajectory for which they are known today.
It’s been a quiet summer at this URL. Though I haven’t been writing here, I seem to be doing more writing than ever. My first priority is the book reviews and essays I’ve been contributing almost weekly to The Discarded Image—a site dedicated to conversations about belief-changing ideas. I’ve also been providing editorial leadership to a group blog at the digital agency where I spend my days writing for clients. And I’ve been doing some research and editorial work on a few book projects (my own and others’).
So this brief message is to say thanks to all of you who still drop in and leave a comment. I’m still reading and thinking and writing, and I have some good changes planned for this space in the near future. Watch for updates soon, and in the meantime, please do get involved in the discussion at The Discarded Image—I’d love to see you there!
Everybody loves a good Western. Saddles and saloons, cowboys and chorus girls, longhorns and lawmen, all dust covered and tasting of desperation. Few figures ride taller in these adventures than Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. But who was the real Dr. John Henry Holliday, and how did he come to be in Tombstone on that fateful day in 1881?
Mary Doria Russell rides to the rescue with Doc, a deeply felt and richly detailed novel that imaginatively fills in the gaps of Holliday’s known life. Russell replaces our two-dimensional icon of the slow-talkin’, fast-drawin’ gunslinger at the OK Corral with a thoroughly-realized Southern dentist—displaced, disgraced and disappointed—who found his greatest satisfaction in easing the pain of others even as he succumbed to his own. Rather than retelling the Tombstone story, she puts it in context, sets it up, by following Holliday from Georgia to Pennsylvania to Texas to Kansas, as he pursues first his career, then his health, and finally the closest thing he has to family.
Russell’s Doc is educated, arrogant, generous, showy, homesick, tender, self-sabotaging, with a tongue as sharp as his shot. Though he hangs out a shingle in rollicking Dodge City, he is too sick to work much of the time, so he makes his living—and his enemies–at the card tables. He survives by sheer force of will, supplemented by his fiery-tempered companion Kate Harony and his loyal friend Morgan Earp.
It’s his friendship with the big-hearted and energetic Morgan that eventually leads to a relationship of mutual respect with Morg’s big brother Wyatt. And though Doc and Wyatt differ in upbringings, resumes and politics, they both give their best to Dodge for the same reasons, reasons that will lead them out of Dodge and into Tombstone together.
Combining historical figures (like the Earp brothers and their stout-hearted women) with fictional characters (like Jau Dong-Sing, proprietor of China Joe’s Laundry and Baths), Russell breathes life into the dust and tumbleweed of Dodge. A character list distinguishing the historical from the fictional, a detailed author’s note describing her research, and a well-chosen epigraph—a quote from Hemingway about how “there is always a chance that such a work of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact”—pay respect to Holliday and Earp family history without apologizing for Russell’s empathetic imagination. And unlike many other treatments of Wyatt and Doc, she gives the women in their lives more face time, digging deeper into their struggles and motivations alongside the men.
As at home with Southern gentility as she is with the appetites of trail-riding cowboys, Russell has crafted an entertaining and plausible story about the man who came to be known in Western lore simply as “Doc.”
This review is cross-posted at The Discarded Image.