A PERSONAL JOURNAL, KEPT LARGELY TO RECORD REFERENCES TO WRITINGS, MUSIC, POLITICS, ECONOMICS, WORLD HAPPENINGS, PLAYS, FILMS, PAINTINGS, OBJECTS, BUILDINGS, SPORTING EVENTS, FOODS, WINES, PLACES AND/OR PEOPLE.
So with that in mind, in celebration of Samuel Johnson’s 308th birthday, here are some of his best quotes:
“Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.” —The Dictionary of the English Language
“To worm:To deprive a dog of something, nobody knows what, under his tongue, which is said to prevent him, nobody knows why, from running mad.” —The Dictionary of the English Language
“Dull: Not exhilaterating (sic); not delightful; as, to make dictionaries is dull work.” —The Dictionary of the English Language
“Patron: One who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.” —The Dictionary of the English Language
“It is commonly observed, that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.” —The Idler
“I have, all my life long, been lying till noon; yet I tell all young men, and tell them with great sincerity, that nobody who does not rise early will ever do any good.” —The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides
“At the tea table he had considerable demands upon his favorite beverage, and I remember when Sir Joshua Reynolds at my house reminded him that he had drank eleven cups, he replied — ‘Sir, I did not count your glasses of wine, why should you number up my cups of tea?’” —The Life of Samuel Johnson, Vol. 2
“It can scarcely be candid not to make a previous declaration, that he is to expect little justice from the author of this extract, a hardened and shameless tea-drinker.” —A Journal of Eight Days’ Journey
Oh, bittersweet day: the Grexit is upon us. Among those of us who have worked with Graydon Carter for a long time, the thought has lingered uncomfortably in the back of our minds that he might someday snap shut his laptop, pull on his Anderson & Sheppard overcoat, and get on with the rest of his life, leaving Vanity Fair behind. But acknowledging this possibility isn’t the same as living the reality. So it’s with some sadness and shock that we face the truth—that Graydon is departing from the magazine after 25 years—even while we’re happily aware that this won’t be the last we hear of him.
There are a lot of people at V.F. who have been with Graydon for all or most of his tenure, and some, like me, who have worked alongside him even longer. You don’t engender that kind of loyalty simply by offering a good benefits package and the chance to interview, say, Bruce Springsteen or Kerry Washington. Graydon has always possessed a showman’s charisma, a persuasive ability to make you believe, to use one of his stock lines, that This is the best job you’re ever going to have.
My time with him dates back 30 years, to 1987, when, having just completed my sophomore year of college, I reported for duty as a summer intern at Spy, the satirical New York monthly he had co-founded a year earlier with Kurt Andersen. I’d been smitten from afar with Spy’s visual audacity and reportorial approach to humor, but what struck me upon my arrival at the Puck Building, in lower Manhattan, where the magazine was then based, was how stylish an affair it all was. Humor is generally the province of trolls; think of the motley assemblage of unfortunates in the slovenly writers’ room on 30 Rock, and that gives you an accurate picture of the setting in which most good jokes and satire are created in America.
Yet Spy, though run on a shoestring, carried itself off as a sumptuously cast and art-directed screwball comedy: the staff attractive and uncommonly kempt, the offices smartly minimalist, and the magazine’s first anniversary celebrated with a black-tie blowout in the Puck Building’s ground-floor ballroom, the music provided by an all-female big band. Kurt and Graydon were equally responsible for Spy’s distinctive voice and funniness, but, as I was to discover, it was Graydon who was the pushier aesthetician, the one who imposed upon the place his own seductive, wonderful vision, gleaned from black-and-white movies, of how a magazine should look and comport itself. (Spy took its name from the magazine that Jimmy Stewart writes for in George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story.) Later on, with greater resources at Condé Nast, Graydon would scale up these ideas and improve upon them. What if I threw the best party in Hollywood? What if we got the guy who lights the Rolling Stones’ concerts to do the lighting? What if we carved topiary into the shape of Oscar statuettes? What if everyone got a silver Zippo lighter with VANITY FAIR engraved upon it? He was an impresario as much as an editor, a job description he essentially created.
Graydon terrified me at first. He wore, even in the old days, elegant bespoke suits, exuded a sort of regal mystique, and was the first person I’d ever met called Graydon, which, to my provincial ears, was not actually a name. (I am from middle-class New Jersey.) He spoke like someone out of Kipling, referring to cigarettes as “gaspers” and a pee as a “squirt,” and requesting that I make more coffee by gently placing a hand on my shoulder and saying, “David, can you fetch me a cup of your world-famous java?”
But as I got to know Graydon better, I realized that our sensibilities dovetailed in many ways, not least in our love of language (especially as deployed by such comic masters as S.J. Perelman and P.G. Wodehouse) and our belief in the transcendent, unequaled brilliance of The Phil Silvers Show, otherwise known as Sergeant Bilko. We also shared an acute, almost misophonic intolerance of irritating words, both of us finding unbearable such tabloid-hack terms as eatery, boîte, and scarf (when used as a gastronomic verb). To this day, Vanity Fair circulates to its editors a list of Graydon-verboten words and terms, among them doff, eschew, hooker, celebrity, moniker, opine, and A-list. (I did once successfully plead for an exception regarding another banned term, jet set, on the grounds that I was writing, literally, about rich people who flew on the Concorde.)
I also found—and I am just one of many in this regard—that Graydon is a natural mentor figure. He was warm, familial, and paternal, already the father of three boys when I met him. (Years later, my wife and I would ask him to be the godfather of our boy, Henry.) He took us Spy kids to lunch, asked us about our interests and aspirations, and granted us the opportunity to have bylines in a glossy magazine before any of us were old enough to rent a car.
And if you put in a good effort, he didn’t forget you. Two years after that first internship, I graduated from college. My plan was to take a few weeks off and go on a cross-country road trip with my best friend from school, who lived in Washington, D.C. I was staying at this friend’s house when his mother, who was from Louisiana, beckoned from the kitchen, phone receiver in hand, quizzically asking, “Y’all know someone named Gray-dun Carter?” Graydon, in those pre-cellphone days, had tracked me down by calling my parents and scribbling down the number where I was staying. When I came to the phone, his voice was urgent. “David! Andy Warhol’s diaries have just come out, and they don’t have an index,” he said. “So we’re doing one. Come in on Monday—and be ready to work.” That was on a Friday. My graduation had been four days earlier. What I lost in terms of open-ended summer days and a taste of Fonda-Hopper freedom, I gained in terms of a career, and, over time, an enduring friendship.
Graydon, I eventually learned, was not some plummy munitions heir or the ninth baronet of Tufnell Park, but, rather, a middle-class Canadian who loved America, dreamed big, and moved to New York in his late twenties—a Warhol-like self-invention (with similarly provocative hair). I admire people with this capacity, to will into reality an idealized vision. Graydon has certainly done this with his homes, his offices, and the two restaurants he co-owns, which variously evoke the novels of Henry James, the cabanas of the Beverly Hills Hotel, the sculptures of Joan Miró, the supper club where Barbara Stanwyck sings “Drum Boogie” in Ball of Fire, and MI6’s Kingston, Jamaica, office circa 1962. (For the purest distillation of Graydon’s consciousness and subconscious—the Being John Malkovich-style portal into his brain—have dinner at the Waverly Inn on Bank Street, surrounded by Edward Sorel’s murals of such figures as Jackson Pollock, Anaïs Nin, James Baldwin, Dawn Powell, George S. Kaufman, and Fran Lebowitz. Order the chicken pot pie.)
But it’s at Vanity Fair where Graydon’s gift for endless invention has really served him well. For all the constants in his career—his Anglophilia, his Francophilia, his love of old cars, his curious obsession with the talent agents Sue Mengers and Mike Ovitz, two people who shouldn’t have ever registered in the public’s consciousness but now do in part because Graydon found them interesting—he has himself never been, professionally, a one-trick pony. His V.F. found its footing not as a Spy redux but as quite the opposite: a trusted, authoritative voice on business, starting with the New Establishment list (born in 1994); on the entertainment industry, starting with the Hollywood Issue and portfolio (born in 1995); and on culture, politics, and international affairs, through deep reporting and sharp commentary. He further developed V.F. into the most important showcase for photography since the heyday of Life, granting pages upon pages to, among others, Annie Leibovitz, Bruce Weber, Helmut Newton, Mark Seliger, Jonas Fredwall Karlsson, Snowdon, and Tim Hetherington—and capturing everything from the year’s crop of emerging actors to U.S. soldiers stationed in Afghanistan to the stars of the British stage to New York’s 9/11 first responders.
Like a lot of people as they get older, Graydon grew more serious over time. Through his wife, Anna, he became deeply invested in environmentalism, active in the Natural Resources Defense Council and the movement to curb climate change. His editor’s letters became a platform, in 2003, for his vocal, vigorously reasoned objections to the Iraq War, leading to the publication of his 2004 book, What We’ve Lost. More recently, his letters have been surgical dissections of his old Spy-magazine adversary Donald Trump, nominally and temporarily the holder of the most powerful office in the world.
But, as John Cleese has often said, we shouldn’t confuse seriousness with solemnity. Vanity Fair still fizzes with variety and fun, just as it did under Frank Crowninshield, the editor during the magazine’s original, Jazz Age run. In fact, Graydon has now outlasted Crownie, as he was known, by almost four years. In terms of influence and longevity, there are few editors in the annals of magazine journalism to match Graydon. Harold Ross and William Shawn at The New Yorker; Willie Morris at Harper’s; Harold Hayes at Esquire; Helen Gurley Brown at Cosmopolitan; Clay Felker at New York. He belongs in that pantheon. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that the aforementioned greats reigned in a time when a magazine was simply a bound stack of printed pages. Graydon has navigated V.F. through the so-called age of disruption, launching the successful Web vertical The Hive last year, building up robust profiles across social media, and playing the impresario at more events than ever. (He’ll be hosting the New Establishment Summit in Los Angeles next month—your last chance for a while to see him play live.)
In a neat bit of symmetry with my graduation-week experience in ’89, I got a call from Graydon during the languid week leading up to Labor Day, once again while I was putatively on vacation. Once again, I was to come see him, tout de suite. But this time, it was at his weekend house in Connecticut, not at the office. And the occasion was for him to deliver the news, gently, that he would soon be leaving Vanity Fair. It’s simply time, he said. He is 68, and he wants to move on while he’s still got plenty of life ahead of him for a third act.
Immediately after his departure from V.F., Graydon told me, he will spend six months living in France with Anna and the youngest of his five children, Isabella. He plans to use this time, he said, basically to recharge—to step outside of the hectic life he has been leading, wean himself off of screens, read more, calm down, maybe visit some cities in Northern and Eastern Europe that he’s never been to, and possibly fly somewhere warm “to see if kitesurfing is as easy as Obama makes it look.”
After that, in the latter half of 2018, he will return to his adopted, beloved home country to begin his next chapter, refreshed and ready to #MakeAmericaGraydon’sAgain.
Half a century has passed since the shocking disappearance of Otis Redding at age twenty-six, when the twin-engine Beechcraft carrying him and most of his touring band the Bar-Kays to a concert crashed in a Wisconsin lake on December 10, 1967. For many who were around then, the time elapsed has not alleviated the shock. The subtitle of Jonathan Gould’s new biography, An Unfinished Life, properly acknowledges the pang of lost possibilities that accompanied that news bulletin. It came at a time of much violence and protest against violence, and was followed soon enough by further catastrophic losses. In the midst of all that, it was hard to give any meaning to Otis’s death beyond random bad luck—although that didn’t stop the inevitable rumors of conspiracy and murder for political or financial reasons.
It wouldn’t have been the Sixties without such rumors. By that point, paranoid distrust was well on the way to becoming the culture’s new mental wallpaper. Buffalo Springfield’s “Paranoia strikes deep,/Into your life it will creep” (“For What It’s Worth,” released January 1967) had sounded the note early, and by year’s end the benign ecstasies of the Monterey Pop Festival, where Otis had performed so triumphantly in June for what he addressed as “the Love Crowd,” were a rapidly curdling recollection. Upon his death, the qualities his fans tended to associate with Otis Redding—his humor, his passionate forthrightness, his delight in the dynamics and textures and constantly evolving grooves of his music—at once belonged to a moment definitively passed.
We played those albums—The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads (1965), Otis Blue (1965), The Soul Album (1966), Dictionary of Soul (1966)—every day in rotation, because their open-spiritedness made rooms more livable and walls less inclined to close in. He suggested a fortunate temperament, not inclined to pettiness and incapable of fake solemnity; able to express pain and frustrated longing with nothing of self-pity, and then turn it around—sometimes in the same phrase—into a mood of free-flying elation. In the absence of any very specific information it was all that easier to make a culture hero of him.
We knew his roots were in rural Georgia, if not from liner notes then from “Tramp,” his 1967 duet with Carla Thomas. Carla: “You know what, Otis? You’re country! You’re straight from the Georgia woods!” Otis: “That’s good!” Impossible to miss the unimpeachable knowledge that in “Chained and Bound” he brought to the lyric: “Taller than the tallest pine,/Sweeter than a grape on a vine.” There hadn’t been time to find out much. His whole publicly known career, starting from the breakthrough August 1962 session at the Stax studios in Memphis where he first recorded “These Arms of Mine,” had lasted five and a half years. His published statements amounted to little more than a couple of interviews in Melody Maker and Hit Parader.
Those who didn’t have the opportunity to catch him live could only go by whatever his voice was telling. Every first encounter was a matter of registering that this was a voice that sounded like no one else’s. The timbre alone seemed to resonate among echoing interior corridors, never mind his capacity to modulate it through shades of roughness and sweetness, keening and crowing, sliding and deflecting and sharpening. The eccentric swerves of the phrasing, the quicksilver embellishments of tone or timing offered continual astonishment. He stood by himself even in an era when he was being judged in comparison with (for starters) Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, James Brown.
If he stood for anything it was the pleasure of inventing, of finding an unforeseen angle to launch from or land on, of working with the Stax musicians—Booker T. and the MGs, with horn parts by the Mar-Keys—to build forms that took on independent life, the circular coda of “My Lover’s Prayer” or the descending variations at the end of “Good to Me” or the high hog-calling ululation on “Hawg for You” or the meshwork of insistent pounding and jabbing organ chords that almost submerges the outcry coming from deep in the cacophonous mix on “I’m Sick Y’All.” In the prolonged fadeouts there was always some further accent or nuance, a further flight of verbal free association.
It hardly mattered whether he had written the song; what he did to “Tennessee Waltz” or “Satisfaction” was another and radical form of composition. “Always think different from the next person,” he told Hit Parader. “Don’t ever do a song as you heard somebody else do it.” That sheer difference was the first overwhelming fact. Too different for Top 40 radio in the beginning: it would take all of those five years to make much of a dent at the top of the charts, and only posthumously did he achieve his first million seller, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” the beginning of a fresh phase of experiment stopped in its tracks.
Jonathan Gould has written an absorbing and ambitious book about a life cut short, a life devoid of the melodrama and self-destruction that enliven the biographies of so many of Otis Redding’s contemporaries. He was far from an overnight success, but from the moment he began pushing toward a musical career—as far back as his formation, with some childhood friends, of a gospel quartet calling themselves the Junior Spiritual Crusaders—he moved only forward. He lived by his own precept: “If you want to be a singer, you’ve got to concentrate on it twenty-four hours a day. You can’t have anything else on your mind but the music business.” He soaked up every musical influence in his vicinity, from gospel to R&B to country and western. Louis Jordan’s humorous calypso hit “Run, Joe” (1948) was a childhood favorite, and it’s fun to imagine the seven-year-old Otis singing it, undoubtedly in perfect pitch and with total mastery of Jordan’s version of a West Indian accent. As a teenager he won the local talent show at the Hillview Springs Social Club in Macon, Georgia, so many times they wouldn’t let him win anymore.
He sang lead with a succession of local bands, traveled to Los Angeles where he made his first recordings, and mastered the styles of Clyde McPhatter, Jackie Wilson, Ben E. King, Ray Charles, and above all his fellow Maconite Little Richard. His capacity for mimicry was such that in LA he was able (in a practice not unique at the time) to go out on gigs impersonating the Motown artist Barrett Strong, whose “Money” was a huge hit but who was not known to West Coast audiences. The intense focus of this apprenticeship period can be gauged from Otis’s first Stax recordings. Early influences, Little Richard’s especially, linger on, but he can be heard recombining everything he knows to make a sound unmistakably distinct.
From a biographer’s point of view, a recap of his career risks looking like a pattern of steady patient progress toward ever greater artistry and wider popularity. The unqualified admiration and awe expressed in a wide range of testimonials verges on monotony. From family it might be expected, as when his older sister Louise comments: “I always thought Otis was a kind of divine invention, because nobody ever taught him anything; he just knew everything.” But this sort of statement is typical, whether from Grateful Dead musician Bob Weir after seeing Otis at Monterey (“I was pretty sure that I’d seen God on stage”), MGs guitarist Steve Cropper, Otis’s close collaborator at Stax (“Otis Redding was the nicest person I ever met…. He was always working, always on time, always together, loved everybody, made everybody feel great”), or Phil Walden, the Macon R&B enthusiast who became Otis’s longtime business partner (“he may have been the most original, most intelligent person I ever met in my life”).
Gould’s book doesn’t challenge the consensus that Otis Redding was a remarkable and remarkably decent person. In fact it succeeds in making him seem a good deal more remarkable by taking the measure of the historical circumstances he emerged from. The known day-to-day facts of Otis’s short life are only part of the narrative Gould has framed. Those facts take us deep into the minutiae of radio talent shows, fraternity dances, regional disc jockeys, marginal record companies (one of Otis’s early singles came out on the incredibly named Confederate label, complete with battle flag), the whole music industry wilderness of booking agents, song pluggers, personal managers, and miscellaneous hangers-on, a wilderness Otis was apparently able to take increasingly in his stride. But Gould situates these microworlds within a much wider field of action. To do so he often leaves Otis aside for pages at a time, a maneuver he executes with great confidence. None of these excursions are digressions or footnotes; every detail feeds back into the story he is telling.
Gould’s prelude is Otis’s apotheosis at Monterey. He was, along with Jimi Hendrix, one of the only African-American headliners, unknown to most of the audience, and came on stage after midnight to perform a truncated five-song set, backed by Booker T. and the MGs and the Mar-Keys. His show-stopping transmutation of the sentimental pop standard “Try a Little Tenderness” into an accelerating emotional blowout made him, finally, an incontestable sensation. It is everybody’s favorite kind of show business story, the long-deserved sudden incandescent triumph. This one has been told many times, filmed by D.A. Pennebaker, and generally enshrined as a moment to cling to amid the flak and cultural debris of the late Sixties. As so often in pop culture history we find ourselves confronting the same details again, wondering if these shards can still yield any life once they have been installed in a permanent nostalgia exhibit.
Gould sets the tone for what will follow by dollying back into a panoramic establishing shot: “The United States is a vast country, and geography has always played a part in the saga of its popular music.” Within a few paragraphs he evokes large sweeps of territory and time. Ray Charles, Thomas A. Dorsey, Hoagy Carmichael, and Stephen Foster come into the frame. Gould now makes his premise explicit: to understand the significance of what Otis Redding accomplished, “it is necessary to start with an understanding of the cruel and seemingly unyielding constraints of the culture, musical and otherwise, that was being broken through.” That eloquent phrase—“cruel and seemingly unyielding constraints”—sets up the counterforce to illuminate the apparently effortless freedom of Otis Redding’s aesthetic. The book becomes the story of how he resisted constraint and pushed back against cruelty, in his own fashion and in the terms of his own art.
That story will be told, but Gould makes good on his premise by first reviewing the history of popular music in America, encapsulating the nineteenth-century rise of white blackface minstrelsy and then, after the Civil War, of the black minstrelsy that provided an early professional outlet for African-American performers—and then going on to address the general history of the post-Reconstruction South, the culture of lynching, the myth of the Lost Cause, the economy of sharecropping, the social and racial hierarchies of the towns and cities of the industrialized “New South,” the impact of technology (by way of phonographs, battery-powered radios, and roadside jukeboxes) on the dissemination of information and musical styles. He moves rapidly and lucidly through a wide range of events and allusions, landing for a moment on “Swanee” (1919), George Gershwin’s jazzed-up nod to Stephen Foster’s evocation of the “Swanee River,” mentioning that “Al Jolson happened to hear Gershwin play it one night in a Harlem bordello,” and then slipping back to 1918 to linger on the details and circumstances of the torture and lynching of a pregnant woman in Brooks County, Georgia, “near the headwaters of the actual Suwannee River.”
Into this larger picture Gould introduces Otis Redding’s grandmother Laura Fambro, born in 1877 to ex-slaves in Monroe County, and traces the pattern of her life, as far as it can be known or surmised, in the cotton counties of Georgia. (Surmise plays a large role, especially since whatever papers and photographs had been handed down in the family were destroyed in a fire in 1959.) “In the eyes of southern society,” he notes, “the production of cotton was the only reason for people like the Reddings to exist.” He details the exploitation of sharecroppers and the mechanisms of social control hemming them in because, however familiar it ought to be, this forms part of a story “that the great majority of Americans have always been determined to dismiss, forget, or ignore.”
The astonishment of Otis Redding’s career cannot be grasped without a full sense of the ingrained, fear-driven, stifling forces intended to prevent such an emergence from ever happening. Gould takes time therefore to track the family as closely as possible, from well before Otis’s birth, as the widowed Laura and her three sons, three daughters, and four grandchildren move about Georgia in response to changing economic conditions, finding themselves by 1930 in “a three-room cabin on a stretch of unpaved highway” in a corner of Terrell County (later known to civil rights workers, we are told, as “Terrible Terrell”).
After Otis Redding’s birth in late 1941, his family moved to the booming city of Macon, a transportation hub and manufacturing center with a newly built Army Air Force depot and training school. This relocation from the back country to the industrial commotion of the war economy, from a sharecropper’s cabin to a federally funded housing project, must also have been a dislocation. The history of Otis’s family until then had unfolded in a rural universe where, as Gould notes, “their interactions with whites had been few and far between.” In Macon, daily life involved constant small negotiations and tacit estimations around precisely which lines were not to be crossed. As Otis, still on the fringes of his life as a performer, grew to be a man of great charm and commanding stature, he proved adept at turning such negotiations to his advantage, at least by the standards of a time when music business contracts were exploitative almost as a matter of course.
Otis Redding’s story is not one of unusual trauma or deprivation. He came from a tightly knit family bound by strong beliefs. His mother, Fannie, is briefly but vividly described by his older sister as “what you call a natural woman. She didn’t believe in makeup. She didn’t drink. She didn’t believe in dancing.” His father, Otis Sr., was something of a reformed character—presumably under Fannie’s forceful influence—who ended up as a church deacon and liked to affirm that “poor is nothing but a state of mind.”
Otis, who dropped out of high school and ran with a local gang, some of whom toted guns and edged into criminal ways, might early on have seemed adrift, but everything suggests that he maintained a powerful sense of direction at each step of the musical career he began to build from whatever openings Macon could offer. In the world of 1950s Macon, even the most casual and small-scale interactions often impinged on hidden pressures and unexpressed taboos. The grace with which he moved through such obstacles might make his progress look easier than it ever could have been.
With Phil Walden, the young white R&B fan with ambitions as a booking agent, Otis established a close partnership that would also involve Walden’s younger brother and their father, a prominent Macon businessman. Gould parses the evolution of this partnership in almost novelistic detail. The Waldens become prime embodiments of the struggle of some white colleagues, whether in Macon or later in Memphis, to come to terms with their own heritage of white supremacism. (“My father was born and bred as a racist, as all of his contemporaries were,” Phil Walden remarked. “Otis really taught Daddy a lot about being human.”) This is however by no means a feel-good story about mutual understanding painfully achieved. Gould goes into great detail about wrongheaded presumptions and wishful self-congratulation on the part of some who felt they had done Otis a favor by assisting his career, when the favor—of letting others share the profits of his talent—ran quite the other way.
As Otis’s celebrity extended far beyond Macon, with his name being dropped by John Lennon and Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, he remained closely tied to the city and the region. Having achieved a success that would have allowed him to live wherever he wanted, he didn’t choose to move to larger cities, although by then he had spent years performing in New York and Los Angeles and Chicago and, more recently, London and Paris. He determined rather to go back to the deep country his parents had left behind, buying a 270-acre property remote even from Macon, in an underpopulated area near Round Oak, Georgia, having carefully sounded out nearby white residents and determined that he would not be unwelcome, and settling with his wife, Zelma, and their children at the “Big O Ranch.” A publicity photo of him on horseback on a wooded path, taken a few months before his death, seems far removed from a professional life that had consisted for five years of relentless touring interrupted only occasionally by intensely compressed recording sessions.
It is astonishing to realize what a relatively small percentage of Otis Redding’s time was devoted to making the records that preserve his art. Once he had cut his first hits for Stax—“These Arms of Mine” in 1962, “Pain in My Heart” a year later—he was mostly on the road. His new celebrity took him to the famous theaters whose names he would tick off in his wonderful version of “The Hucklebuck”: the Royal Peacock in Atlanta, the Harlem Square Club in Miami, the 5-4 Ballroom in Los Angeles, the 20 Grand Club in Detroit, the Howard in Washington, D.C., the Apollo in New York. As his fan base expanded to include white hipsters and rock celebrities, he cut a live album at LA’s Whisky a Go Go before embarking as the headliner of the Stax-Volt Revue on an enthusiastically received European tour. (A video of an Oslo concert in April 1967 is a remarkable record of the occasion.)
In near-continuous touring he evolved from a physically restrained performer focused on producing those formidable vocal tones—he was, famously, not much of a dancer—to someone who dominated a stage, extracting theatrical power from songs like “Try a Little Tenderness” and ratcheting up the tempo on numbers like “I Can’t Turn You Loose” to the point where even the MGs had trouble keeping up. The live recordings are often magnificent, but it was in the Stax recording studio that he did his greatest work. Perhaps being reunited for brief intervals with the MGs and the Mar-Keys, after touring with other musicians, provided the adrenaline that made it possible to record a masterpiece of an album such as Otis Blue in less than forty-eight hours, with the musicians taking time out in the middle of the session to go play their usual local gigs.
In the live recordings Otis works the audience with overpowering energy. In the studio he sings to the other musicians—and to himself, seeming to surprise himself with the effects as he creates them. He takes apart the lines of songs and breaks them into fragments that he holds up and examines to savor their newly revealed power. The rapport he elicited from Booker Jones, Steve Cropper, and the rest has been amply attested to; just listening to the records is testimony enough. (Among the great pleasures of Gould’s book are his very considered assessments of each of Otis’s albums, track by track.) Beneath everything is the duet he maintains with the MGs’ great drummer Al Jackson Jr. Otis is never “backed” by the musicians; he’s in the middle, responding and directing. Unable to read music and not a virtuoso on any instrument but his voice, he was able by singing the parts to organize complex instrumental arrangements that might be recorded on the spot. The Stax sessions for the most part did not involve overdubbing or splicing fragments together; they were assembled in place and recorded in real time.
A final note on lyrics: Otis was known for his casual approach to the words of songs, improvising new lyrics for his version of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” and, in Gould’s view, botching Sam Cooke’s final masterpiece “A Change Is Gonna Come” by garbling the narrative. For Gould, it was only gradually that Otis fully appreciated the importance (commercially as well as aesthetically) of lyrical coherence, an appreciation evident in the control of “The Dock of the Bay.” On the other hand, what Otis did with language right from the beginning was central to his art: those elisions, unexpected emphases, distortions, those diminutives that enlarged (“a littlepain in my heart”), those inspired bursts of nonsense and sound effects marking the very edge of language and seeking to go beyond it. Language was only one of the things he was always taking apart and putting back together again, differently.
What, exactly, do philosophers do? Are they primarily engaged in inward-looking technical debates, or are they the leading innovators who frame wider projects? In this elegantly written and insightful survey of selected thinkers from Hobbes and Descartes to Voltaire and Rousseau via Spinoza, Locke, Bayle, Leibniz and Hume, Anthony Gottlieb argues for their key role in the formation of the Enlightenment. As an exercise in making philosophical writing widely accessible, this is a blast of fresh air; better still, the volume is one of a trilogy, following his widely praised The Dream of Reason (2001), and we have one more to come. But that putative outcome may be questioned.
Communicators of genius have organizing frameworks too. In Gottlieb’s account, this 150-year “staccato burst” of European philosophy was a response to two leading stimuli: “Europe’s wars of religion and the rise of Galilean science”. This phase (one of only two in philosophy’s history, he claims) happened when some people began to criticize “the ancients” and “the authority of the Church”. Such is the book’s explanatory structure; yet on closer examination Gottlieb’s thinkers partly fit his model, partly not. Descartes, for example, is presented as saying nothing of the wars of religion that had torn Europe for a century, and was “apparently untouched by any doubts about the main dogmas of the Catholic Church”.
The new science is central to this book, but proves to be a source of contention as well as of common cause. Leibniz later thought Descartes’s four rules of scientific method, writes Gottlieb, “so vague as to be almost vacuous”. Gottlieb quotes Descartes’s words that “in many cases the grasp of the senses is very obscure and confused”. Despite Voltaire’s praise, Locke’s empiricism is not, for Gottlieb, the unchallenged key to the Enlightenment: empiricists disputed with rationalists (a “vague and confusing” distinction anyway) at least until Kant, and many philosophers, like Hobbes, Spinoza and Leibniz, did not see the problem of knowledge as central. Descartes’s arguments for the existence of knowledge depend on his arguments for the existence of God; yet “his theological arguments are flimsy”. Nor was Descartes a social campaigner. The rights of women, like other political topics, did not interest him. “He had focussed more on the general nature of knowledge than on any social consequences of enlightenment.”
As for Hobbes, Descartes condemned the tendencies of his teaching, despite Hobbes being a supporter of the “new philosophy”, but Hobbes took materialism far beyond Descartes. Though profoundly interested in politics, Hobbes made common cause with nobody and had few followers (no Enlightenment project there; indeed, Diderot condemned him). Hobbes, cautions Gottlieb, did not set out to provide “a purely secular understanding of politics”, although he clearly satisfied Gottlieb’s criterion of seeking to provide a remedy for religious war. Hobbes was making “a purely technical point” in arguing that the sovereign could do no wrong, since he was arguing deductively from definitions. He met Galileo in 1636, embraced the “mechanical philosophy” and used it as a model for politics, but his deduction emerges here as far more important than his mechanics.
Locke and Hume, argues Gottlieb, echoed Hobbes even as they distanced themselves from him (not always successfully). Locke, for example, wrote in the same terms as Hobbes about free will. But Hume’s Treatise of Human Naturedid not follow Hobbes’s Leviathan in the latter’s attention to religion. We might add that Hume’s work sought to reconcile dynastic conflict, not wars of religion. Gottlieb rightly defends Hobbes from the charge of atheism, but can hardly do the same for Hume.
Spinoza, by contrast, had problems with the Portuguese Synagogue at Amsterdam, which expelled him. But Gottlieb asserts Spinoza’s theism in the context of a discussion of his attachment to the new science: “Spinoza can be seen as carrying the message of the mechanical philosophy beyond the confines of physics into the new territory of religion and ethics”. Indeed, he published a respectful commentary on Descartes’s philosophy that pushed its ideas, in some ways, further. But Gottlieb judges that Hobbes, and to a lesser extent Spinoza, did themselves harm by seeking to copy Euclidian geometry as a model of philosophical demonstration. Arguments that God is in some sense the same as nature, although not exactly what Spinoza said, proved problematic both as physics and as a means of religious reconciliation. Spinoza’s practical concern was also with the inner conflicts of his Marrano community, not the wars of Protestant and Catholic or the theological controversies sparked by Luther or Calvin. While advocating religious toleration, Spinoza taught the necessity of political intervention to sustain a state Church, supported to advance “public peace and well-being”. The national religion was to be “of a most universal nature”, and, presumably, enforced by the state. After all, Spinoza “thought he already knew what the best sort of life consists in”.
Gottlieb takes Locke’s attack on innate knowledge to be a commonsensical foundation of “British empiricism” rather than the political point it was (that is, a critique of royalists’ claims that monarchical allegiance was natural or innate); he believes that “in questions of religion, Locke’s leading idea was that theological doctrines must be answerable to the court of reason” without noting that Locke approved a priori of some forms of religion and disapproved of others. For that reason, we might add, Locke could offer no solution to the conflict of religions. Gottlieb tells us that “Newton and Locke were often pronounced to be the twin prophets of the Enlightenment”, but without noting that this happened very much later, and without offering any evidence of Locke’s supposed role.
Instead, we learn in conventional terms that Locke was just one of those who protested against Charles II’s “Catholic absolutist ambitions” with “vigorous defences of political freedom”. Just how Locke’s politics related to his epistemology or to his interest in the new science we never learn. Gottlieb hints that some of Locke’s political ideas (we do not learn which) may have been “stolen” from his friend James Tyrrell. He adds that Locke’s theory that the legitimacy of government depends on an original contract fails since it would have been, in Hume’s words, “obliterated by a thousand changes of government and princes”. According to Locke, men entered into civil society to protect their property. But, Gottlieb objects, Native Americans did no such thing.
Locke’s claim to have fathered the Enlightenment rests chiefly on his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, “rightly seen as an ambitious elaboration and extension of the ‘new philosophy’ of Galileo, Descartes, Newton and the Royal Society”. But was it? The famous objection that Locke’s Two Treatises of Government depends on natural law, but that the Essay denies innate ideas (by implication including natural law) is not examined. No Enlightenment project here either, then.
Pierre Bayle argued, in Gottlieb’s words, both that atheism would not cause the disintegration of society and that “the persecution of heresy” would cause “endless bloodshed”. But Bayle, too, “had reservations about Catholics”, so that, we might infer, religious peace depended on Catholics not being tolerated. This would not easily bear out Bayle’s reputation of being “something of a Socrates to those thinkers in the eighteenth century and beyond who thought of themselves as enlightened”.
Leibniz, a scientific polymath, can hardly be bettered as a practitioner of the new science, but he was also the author of an unpublished book-length critique of Locke’s Essay. In turn, his argument that this is the best of all possible worlds incurred Voltaire’s satire. Leibniz was also fearful that the new science would threaten, in his words, “the certainty of an eternity after death”; he wrote a work against the implications of Spinoza’s Ethics and another against Bayle’s ideas of theodicy, which shows little sense of common cause. He pursued, in religion, a “project of universal reconciliation”, but it is not clear how many of his contemporaries noticed. His employer the Elector of Hanover, when he became George I, refused him permission to move to England, perhaps because Leibniz was attacking Newton’s ideas as “in effect, an insult to God”.
The scenario with which the book opens seems seldom appropriate except on the old premiss that Churches and monarchs were all superstitious and stupid, which hardly squares with the Lutheran Leibniz’s relations with his princely patrons. For Hume, religion was “a phenomenon to be explained in psychological and historical terms”, writes Gottlieb. But although Hume clearly did see himself breaking the shackles of Christian superstition, he did not do so by forging any alliance with natural science. Rather, for Hume the central issue was “the problem of induction”, and here he concluded that we are led not by reason or science but by custom; as he wrote, “divinity and school metaphysics” were only “sophistry and illusion”.
Instead of a Conclusion, Gottlieb offers a chapter on Voltaire and Rousseau. But this is not exactly a culmination. True, no more sarcastic opponent of the French Church could be found than Voltaire, and Rousseau admired only “the religion of the Gospel pure and simple”. But neither derived their stances on religion from any significant knowledge of the new science, however much Voltaire praised Bacon, Galileo and Descartes as enemies of superstition. Rousseau, indeed, condemned the sciences as “futile in the objects they propose” and “dangerous in the effects they produce”. Technological inventions were often harmful (printing, for example, which spread the “pernicious reflections” of Spinoza). Philosophy was as bad, continued Rousseau: “the reasoning and philosophic spirit . . . quietly saps the true foundations of every society”. Better far for man were “ignorance, innocence, and poverty”.
Rousseau also hated Voltaire and fell out spectacularly with Hume. Where, then, was the consensual Enlightenment project? Towards the end, the book limits its ambitions. The philosophes increasingly stressed human limitations: rather than the Age of Reason, “‘The Age of Trying to Be More Reasonable’ would therefore be a more accurate, though less snappy, name for their times”. It is a limp conclusion, despite Gottlieb’s fervent final championing of “The case for the Enlightenment” in the singular.
Why, then, did this array of outstanding thinkers write as they did? Perhaps such leaders were primarily preoccupied with those high-level debates on abstractions after all: Descartes’s vortices, Leibniz’s monads; Locke’s original contract, Priestley’s phlogiston. Perhaps their religious and political preferences were not determined by their philosophical methodologies? Anthony Gottlieb’s skill lies in making these debates both intelligible and enjoyable, but what did they amount to in the end? Are philosophers really so useful? Did even this remarkable team actually manage to frame “the Enlightenment”? Gottlieb’s very lucidity of prose and of intellect leaves us with more doubts, not fewer.