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Reviews and Essays

Midwestern Battleground

September 15, 2018  | 

Fourteen years ago the pundit Thomas Frank asked what was the matter with Kansas. Today the question is, who sank Wisconsin? In “The Fall of Wisconsin,” the journalist Dan Kaufman laments the state’s recent trajectory and chronicles “the conservative war” on its political legacy. That legacy in a word is progressivism: seeded by socialist immigrants …

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A Dreamer at the Piano

September 14, 2018  | 

Picture a man swooning and raging with all the passions of youth. Every problem is a crisis, each feeling an ocean. His commitment to political and artistic freedom yields only to the irrepressible truths of love and beauty. Put that exhausting spirit to music and you have the tragic Romantic composer Robert Schumann. His diaries …

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Postscript to the Preludes

August 16, 2018  | 

High on a mountainside, in an abandoned monastery on the Spanish island of Majorca, Frédéric Chopin worked at a small upright piano. His room resembled, in his words, “a tall coffin, the enormous vaulting covered with dust, the window small.” Outside, the winter landscape featured a crusader’s church and a ruined mosque, cypresses and olive …

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Ready to Blow

July 17, 2018  | 

How times change. One of the most alarming features of daily life in the United States just a generation ago has seemingly disappeared. Between 1945 and 1991, as Americans went to work, took their children to school, watched ball games, and napped on the beach, the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union hummed …

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Commander v. Chief

April 1, 2018  | 

At a white house stag dinner in February 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower shocked the new chief justice of the United States. Earl Warren was Eisenhower’s first appointment to the Supreme Court and had been sworn in just four months earlier. Only two months into his tenure, Warren had presided over oral arguments in the blockbuster …

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Northwest to the Sea

March 22, 2018  | 

In the late eighteenth century, the fur trade in North America entailed a huge and costly detour. Beaver pelts, harvested in Canada and the United States and destined for China, had first to be shipped east to London. From there they traveled southwest, around Cape Horn, and then west halfway around the world to the …

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In Search of Lost Dublin

February 23, 2018  | 

The other morning, my wife and I arrived early to breakfast. The restaurant had not yet opened so we took a walk, even though the day was cold. Chicago’s West Loop is a supremely fashionable neighborhood but rough at the edges, a remnant of its recent industrial past. Each intersection therefore entailed some question as …

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The Sound of the Future

December 11, 2017  | 

Beethoven was the first great Romantic composer, and if you listen closely you can hear the moment he launched a new era in music. It occurs about a minute into the third movement of his Symphony No. 3, Eroica. After ninety-two bars of indeterminate pianissimo throat clearing, the orchestra suddenly scales upward and erupts in …

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Another Reason to Rejoice Greatly

December 8, 2017  | 

It is a December evening, and you’re trapped in a school auditorium for the holiday concert. The long-suffering music director raises a baton, the violins screech horribly and some petrified high-school tenor, all puberty and nerves, squeaks out the first few notes of “Comfort Ye,” the opening aria of Handel’s “Messiah.” Your soul convulses as …

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Da Vinci’s Diaries

October 26, 2017  | 

Leonardo da Vinci — bearded sage of the Renaissance, anatomist, engineer, inventor, and creator of two of the most famous paintings in history (Mona Lisa and The Last Supper) — was first and foremost a mensch. He was, according to an acquaintance, handsome and kind, a gay vegetarian, “friendly, precise, and generous, with a radiant, …

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Russia’s Founding Father

August 24, 2017  | 

When Mikhail Gorbachev rose to give his first address as general secretary of the Communist Party in 1985, listeners could be forgiven their low expectations. The previous three Soviet premiers were walking fossils. Their mumbling speeches inspired no one. Konstantin Chernenko, Gorbachev’s immediate predecessor, wheezed and coughed and was as yellow as old fingernails; a …

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How the Thug Became a Dove

June 10, 2017  | 

While serving as attorney general, Robert Kennedy wore his hair close-cropped in the style of the early 1960s. After a trip to the barber it could almost resemble a crew cut. But after President Kennedy’s assassination, he began growing it out. By the time he became a candidate for president in 1968, he had an …

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