Month: December 2010

Joking Aside

Sir Charlie Chaplin, The Funniest Man in the World
By Sid Fleischman
(Greenwillow Books, New York, 2010, $19.99)

With his trademark shuffle and small black mustache, Charlie Chaplin became one of the most recognizable and enduring icons in early American cinema. Off screen, his life resembled a sprawling, melodramatic novel. His London childhood had all the elements of Dickens: squalor, mysterious parentage, stints in workhouses, a cruel stepmother, and a mentally ill mother. He entered show business through vaudeville and theatre, and by his mid-twenties, he was a Hollywood star. Eventually, he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in his own films. But Chaplin was more than a master of slapstick. He satirized Adolf Hitler in 1940’s The Great Dictator. After World War II, Chaplin became a target of the anti-communist witch hunts sweeping the nation. His leftwing politics led to his deportation from the United States in 1952.

In Sir Charlie Chaplin, The Funniest Man in the World, Sid Fleischman relates the comedian’s remarkable rise to fame. Photographs, especially those of Chaplin’s most iconic film roles, bring the star’s work to life. However, Fleischman often forgets that his intended audience is children over nine. His approach to his subject presupposes a well-rounded liberal arts education. Here is how Fleischman describes one of Chaplin’s early leading ladies: “She had a figure like a Greek statue, but better arms.” Chaplin fell in love with his costar and began writing “billets-doux” to her. Fleischman’s many cultural allusions may confound even well-read teenagers; far fewer nine year olds will get his asides and references.

Sir Charlie Chaplin has much to recommend it: an intriguing subject, appealing photographs, and a witty author. However, the biography is an adult’s book in everything but length. For teens and adults, it is a breezy introduction to the comedian’s life and work; younger children will find it bewildering.

Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith

By Deborah Heligman
(Henry Holt and Company, LLC, New York, 2009, $18.95)

Today, people remember Charles Darwin as the author of The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. His writings still inspire controversy today. However, the scientist behind evolution was hardly a revolutionary. A thoughtful, mild-mannered man, Darwin agonized about the uproar his hypotheses might cause – and the pain they might give his deeply religious wife.

In Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith, Deborah Heligman interweaves Darwin’s intellectual biography with an intimate portrait of his marriage. She describes his experiments with barnacles, worms, and orchids, and discusses his gradual journey from believer to agnostic. Charles Darwin began quietly questioning traditional Christianity in his mid-twenties. When he proposed to Emma Wedgwood, he expressed his doubts to her. Despite their religious differences, their forty-three year marriage was a happy one. Together, they faced the maelstrom his books inspired and the deaths of three of their ten children.

To tell the Darwins’ story, Heligman uses their letters and Charles’ many notebooks. (The meticulous scientist didn’t just take notes about plants and animals; he also recorded and analyzed his own emotions and his children’s facial expressions.) The reader sees Charles weighing marriage and bachelorhood, empathizes with Emma as she agonizes over her husband’s soul, and weeps with the Darwins when they lose their children. Through this personal approach, Heligman both introduces readers to Victorian England and dissolves the boundaries between generations.

Meticulously researched and beautifully written, Charles and Emma works equally well as a love story and an intellectual history. With this book, Heligman proves that biographers don’t have to choose between emotions and ideas: the two are inseparable as the most loving partners.