Millions of readers have been introduced to the virtues of the classical world by Edith Hamilton, two of whose books, The Greek Way (published in 1930) and The Roman Way (1932), showed a world poised between two global wars how societies could be created that valued the individual without forsaking order and discipline. Her route to scholarly fame was a bit circuitous, since she had spent 25 years as a headmistress at a girls’ preparatory school, never earned a doctorate, and did not publish her first book until she was in her early 60s. She also was a lesbian, taking as her life partner a woman nearly 30 years younger, a fact she never disguised even while living in Washington, D.C., during the so-called Lavender Scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Victoria Houseman excavates Hamilton’s life and beliefs with meticulous and engaging care, leaving readers with as much admiration for Hamilton the woman as they have for her works, which to this day remain in print.
Here is another wonderful reissue in the United States by McNally Editions, which has a sterling record of finding books worthy of a fresh introduction to today’s readers. Duff Cooper was many things—soldier, ambassador, British Cabinet member—as well as husband of Lady Diana Cooper, the actress and socialite whose fame landed her on the cover of Time magazine in 1926. Cooper wrote only one novel, based loosely on the real-life World War II escapade of outfitting a cadaver with false battle plans and dropping him off the coast of Spain in hopes of being found by the Germans and deceiving them into thinking the British planned to invade Greece instead of Sicily. The true story of Operation Mincemeat was told long after the publication of Cooper’s novel, in 1950, but nothing captures the pathos of war as the story of Cooper’s hapless hero, Willie Maryington, a man stymied in his desire to serve in World War I but who as the corpse finally does serve a nation that never treated him well win the war.
Any book by Anna Reid is a cause for celebration, since few historians write with such verve and authority. Her 2012 book, Leningrad, brought alive the World War II siege of the city and was published in 18 languages. A Nasty Little War details the now largely forgotten intervention by 180,000 Allied troops into Russia between 1918 and 1920 to aid the anti-Bolshevik armies and undo the 1917 Russian Revolution. Defeat ensued for the invaders, save for liberating Estonia and Latvia, and Reid artfully connects this Western meddling to both World War II and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. (Reid worked as a correspondent in Kyiv during the early 1990s and has written a book on Ukraine.) If a historian’s task is to show how the past illuminates the present, Reid succeeds brilliantly.
American Classicist is available at your local independent bookstore, on Bookshop, and on Amazon. A Nasty Little War will be available beginning February 6, and Operation Heartbreak beginning February 13