Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) wasn’t an urban planner, though The Death and Life of American Cities, with its model of the “mixed-income, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, sensitively scaled, densely populated community” remains one of the twentieth century’s most influential books. Nor was she an economist, though economics was at the heart of her work. She had no academic credentials at all, not even a bachelor’s degree. What she had was courage, curiosity, and an ongoing “conflict with received wisdom.” Robert Kanigel calls her “some odd breed of genius,” and her iconoclastic spirit infuses every page of his energetic Eyes on the Street (Knopf, $35). Jacobs said she “grew up with the idea that she could do anything”; she proceeded accordingly, leaving Scranton at age eighteen to become a writer in New York. She wrote on everything from furs and diamonds to Cold War propaganda and the metal industry, freelancing for Vogue, then working as a staff writer for Amerika (a publication of the Office of War Information), Iron Age, and Architectural Forum. Later, it was all books. Books—and a long and happy marriage to the architect Robert Jacobs, three unconventional children, and indefatigable social activism. Her fight against Robert Moses and his expressway was only one of Jacobs’s many battles; she protested the Vietnam War, was arrested twice, and moved to Toronto to keep her sons from being drafted. There she continued to work against large-scale urban renewal projects, and her home became a headquarters for community organizing. Ideas were Jacobs’s lifeblood and she was never more charismatic—never more of a people person—than when she was in the middle of a passionate debate.
Julia Ward Howe is best known for having written “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and history and literary buffs may also recognize her as poet, abolitionist, and advocate for women’s suffrage. But until now far less has been written about the depths of her misery in marriage, her secret writings or, on a brighter note, her proximity to the cultural and political leaders of her day. The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe (Simon & Schuster, $28) by the superb literary critic and author Elaine Showalter, immerses readers in Howe’s public and private worlds – her civil wars. Seeing Howe through the lens of history, and with an honest but compassionate eye, Showalter describes her subject’s gallant but often tenuous attempts to match her great gifts, ambitions, and opinions against the challenges and expectations placed on women in nineteenth-century America. Part biography, part history, part social criticism, this is narrative non-fiction at its best – a story that tells a bigger story, one that engages the reader so deeply and on so many levels that, once you start reading, you won’t want to put it down.
In The Six (St Martin’s, $29.99), a comprehensive account of the famous Mitford sisters, British journalist, writer, and biographer Laura Thompson revives a world both gone utterly and forever, and strikingly, disturbingly familiar. These crazy, dramatic, improbable lives play out against a background of mass rallies, simplistic, violent ideologies, rampant, resurgent nationalism and, finally, war. As the Mitfords rub shoulders with Churchill and Hitler, Mosley and Kennedy, their personal beliefs, actions, and rivalries, along with their devastating consequences, mirror the fractures in the wider world. Celebrities in a time even more ruthlessly judgmental than our own, the sisters were protected by breathtaking privilege and entitlement; they were symbols of inequality, and yet were often broke; lived close to power and history, and were powerless to change it; they were so clever, and yet so mad; so beautiful and yet so, so ugly. The Novelist, the “Normal” One, the Fascist, the Nazi, the Communist, and the Duchess, otherwise known as Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, and Deborah, along with their parents and their brother, Tom, are forever linked as the “mad, mad Mitfords.” After all the myth-making, the novels and memoirs, the spin and the damage control, the fights and the reconciliations, Thompson’s book is a reminder that truth is still sometimes stranger, and more interesting, than fiction.