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Another ‘Founding Fathers’ classic

By Wilford Kale

How did Greek and Roman history and the philosophy of those times shape the beliefs and actions of the nation’s first four presidents?

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist-now-turned-historian Thomas E. Ricks answers that question in a detailed analysis, “First Principles: What America’s Founding Fathers Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How that Shaped Our Country,” (Harper, 416 pgs., $29.99).

Former four-star Marine general and secretary of defense, James Mattis, summed up this book better than I can: “Ricks knocks it out of the park with this jewel of a book. On every page I learned something new.”

As a foundation for his philosophical study, Ricks examines the educational background of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In turn, he explores the lives of these founding fathers from their youths to adult lives, acknowledging their accomplishments and failings much within the classical sphere of influence.

Along the way, Ricks said he also learned about the Scottish invention of geology in the late 18th century and “the importance of Aristotle to the redoubted Southern defense of slavery” in the first half of the 19th century.

Individually, Ricks found that Washington’s “ability to observe and learn seems to me underappreciated,” with Adams having “an inflated reputation in recent years with insufficient attention” paid to his disastrous presidency. He became increasingly disturbed by Thomas Jefferson’s avoidance of reality and the undervalued contributions of James Madison to the American system of government.

American classicism began to die in the first half of the 19th century, Ricks observed. Changes in American college education “underscored that times were different.” By 1850, technology and its steam engine were viewed “to be equal in its powers to the orations of Cicero” and steam “is a mightier epic than the Iliad.”

While the Enlightenment and particularly the writings of John Locke were important in the days of the founding fathers, it was philosophy and literature of the ancient world — Xenophon, Epicurus, Aristotle Cato and Cicero — that became “part of their political vocabulary and as the foundation of their personal values,” Ricks wrote. “In short, it shaped their view of the world in a way that most Americans now are not taught and so don’t see.”

Ricks stressed throughout the volume that “Colonial Classicism was not just about ideas. It was part of the culture, a way of looking at the world and a set of values.”

 

Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline

I’ve been a fan of country music since my childhood, 70 years or so again, in Charlotte, N.C. Arthur Smith and the Crackerjacks, a regional music group, were heard on the radio and played in school gyms and small theaters all over North and South Carolina before they became local television favorites.

Back then, I didn’t know anything about the Grand Ole Opry, much less singers who were part of the Opry cast. Few members of my family knew I liked country music. (I also delight in old time gospel songs.)

Therefore, when I saw Loretta Lynn’s book, “Me & Patsy Kickin’ Up Dust: My Friendship with Patsy Cline,” (Grand Central Publishing, 353 pgs., $30) it became a must read. Patsy Cline, from Winchester, had a marvelous, rich and powerful voice, underscored by television producer Ken Burns in his country music series and book. Her stage presence was commanding but with far too few performances due to her untimely death at age 30 — in 1963 in an airplane crash.

In many ways, her musical legacy is still growing, as evidenced by Lynn’s book.

Lynn chronicles their friendship in a wonderful storytelling way. Cline became a mentor for Lynn in every aspect of her life, from music to sex. Cline pushed Lynn into the music field, not gracefully but with a shove. Don’t be timid, Cline told her — you have to take charge. That’s the way Cline was, Lynn relates in their life stories.

Lynn was a hesitant person and without Cline, she probably would never have stayed in country music to become a legend herself, Lynn explains.

Cline became one of the first country singers to cross over to pop music. “Patsy never sang a bad song — so listen to them all,” Lynn wrote, and listed “Walkin’ After Midnight” as her favorite Cline tune. Others she liked were: “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Crazy,” “Back in Baby’s Arms,” and “I Fall to Pieces.”

“I hope reading this book made you feel a little closer to her, kind of like she was your friend, too. When you listen to her music, I hope you feel that same closeness, as if she’s singing just for you. The truth is, she was,” Lynn writes, concluding her book.

 

Heartrending Book—A difficult life story

It’s intriguing, dramatic and heartrending! David Cariens’ new book, “Escaping Madness: Alcoholism, Mental Illness Murder,” (High Tide Publications, 155 pgs., $13.99) is not an easy read. It’s a life story — an unconventional memoir — and full of important side stories about a family in a turmoil — not realized until years after the events.

Cariens, who lived in Williamsburg for a few years before retiring to Kilmarnock, has opened his heart, his mind and his own failings to give the reader an understanding of the worth of life. His own strength and openness is apparent in this saga.

His mother and brother had a traumatic relationship due to their mental illness and their lack of understanding of what had happened to them. Their relationship was never resolved and would devastate their family for years.

Cariens, with the help of his wife, has been able to wrestle with, as the title says, mental illness, alcoholism and even the murder of his oldest grandchild. And he has overcome.

The recommendation to read this comes with a warning. It may awaken some of your own interself repressions. Nevertheless, take the gamble.