American Gothic:The Story of America’s Legendary Theatrical Family—Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth, by Gene Smith***

americangothicI was invited to read and review this title by Open Road Media and Net Galley. Thanks to them for the DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This title was released to the public October 4 and can be purchased any time you want it.

Although I love a good night at the theater as much as anyone else, I came to this bearing a love of history and a strong affinity for the American Civil War. I didn’t realize to what extent this would be purely a biography of this family of actors, and it was because of this that I became somewhat disillusioned.

Smith has carefully documented the lives of Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth. He talks about their predecessors, their early development, and their careers, and he documents everything he talks about. Those studying nineteenth century American actors will want this book, because these men were the most famous of their time period, tickets to see them perform much sought after.

My problem is with the elephant in the room.

It’s hard not to approach John Wilkes Booth without thinking about military history, and about his role in what was essentially an incipient CIA within the Confederacy. Other sources neatly document the fact that it was not a case of simple mental illness on the part of an assailant that made President Lincoln, the greatest president in the history of the USA, die. There was a great deal of planning involved, of research about where he would be and when he would be there. Contacts were made, and a plot was launched that was initially much more far reaching in scope, but with the surrender of Lee’s army, others within the cadre left town fast and didn’t look back. Booth was the one that decided he was going to follow through, one way or the other. How much of it was due to a longing for an historical spotlight, how much was due to emotional instability, and how much was a calculated effort to revive the Confederacy by assassinating Lincoln, we do not know, but what we do know, and what Smith doesn’t say, is that this was not a matter of simply yielding to impulse, of losing one’s sanity and suddenly deciding to kill a great leader. It was done in a calculated way, and I can’t respect this biography when this information is omitted. All we hear about are references to early signs of “madness”, as if this horrible deed can be swept to the side by the use of one well-placed word.

That being said, The New York Times loved this book. If the history of acting is your wheelhouse, you may want to read it. There’s nothing of method or technique that will help a developing actor, but it doesn’t pretend to be. It’s about the actors’ lives and careers, and that’s pretty much it.

Those that treasure history as a bigger picture, or that are looking for some tiny morsel to help them understand what made John Wilkes Booth carry out this monstrous, well-planned killing will remain as much in the dark when the book ends, as they are now.

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