Thursday, June 29, 2006

At Canaan's Edge an impressive feat, but . . .

60. At Canaan’s Edge, Taylor Branch. History, 6-29 , p. 771

Taylor Branch’s son, Franklin, was born only a few weeks before Branch began the research on his sweeping triptych on America in the King Years. Franklin finished college in time to help with the research on the final book in the series, At Canaan's Edge. I don’t believe Branch understood when he set out to research and write Parting the Waters, the first book in the trilogy, that he was embarking on his life’s work.

That was the ultimate outcome. Parting the Waters appeared in 1988. Pillar of Fire was issued in 1998 and, early this year, the series was completed with At Canaan’s Edge.

It’s an impressive feat and a worthy one: Three books, impeccably researched, somewhere in excess of 2,100 or 2,200 pages of text not counting the notes, index or bibliography. Parting the Waters won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Regular readers of this blog are going to sense a however, however.

My quibble—and it is only that—is the same one I had with Arthur Gelb’s City Room or Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton. Part of the real talent in assembling a book of this scope is know what to leave out as much as what to put in. I refer you to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals as a stellar example of a work of history with no extraneous material. Goodwin is a historian who writes with the pacing of a novelist.

Branch writes with eloquence and passion, at times. And at others, the history grinds to a halt in the minutia of, say, the internal politics of SNCC or SCLC or is diverted, as was much of the country, by the escalating war in Vietnam. OK, we should know dissension existed within the Civil Rights' leadership and the impact of the Vietnam dissent on the Civil Rights movement must be considered, but it’s a question of degree.

I spent almost a month with this book—that’s a long time for me to spend with any book. And, at times, it felt like a slog. I’m glad I read it and the first two books in the series, for that matter. It is an important work and a lasting contribution to our understanding of the Civil Rights campaign and its impact on the Women’s Movement and the Gay Rights Movement that were to follow.

I know he'd probably like to move on to something new, but I'd encourage Taylor Branch to write one more book on the Civil Rights movement--a distillation of his three books into one. Something on the order of James Thomas Flexner's Washington The Indispensable Man, which represented a one-volume condensation of his four-volume biography of Washington, is what's called for here.

No comments:

Post a Comment